GOOD OL’ Charlie Brown. Always out there on the mound, even in the rain, ready to give his best for the rest of the “Peanuts” gang.
That’s what I think of brown ale, the Charlie Brown of beer. It’s a dependable, go-to glass; crack open a bottle of Newcastle Brown or Smuttynose Old Brown Dog, and you pretty much know you’re going to get a malty, mildly hopped easy-drinker. Nothing over the edge. A satisfying, honest, even-tempered pal.
Unfortunately, like the newspaper comic strip, brown ale is increasingly a thing of the past.
Sam Adams Brown? Haven’t seen it in years. Sierra Nevada? It hides its excellent Tumbler Autumn Brown in a mixed-variety case. Troegs Rugged Trail, one of the Pennsylvania brewery’s original bottled brands, these days makes only occasional appearances on draft. Flying Fish Chestnut Brown Ale, released in 2012 as part of its Exit series, was one and done. Left Hand Deep Cover Brown is gone, and so are the brown ales from Leinenkugel, Green Flash, Harpoon and North Coast.
And forget about Pete’s Wicked Ale, the granddaddy of American brown ales, which introduced millions to the style. It has been gone since its owners liquidated four years ago.
For many, brown ale was a gateway beer, the first time they ever dared to taste something dark. But, in an age when so many craft-beer enthusiasts are fixated on extreme flavor, brown ale is as bland as that zigzag T-shirt that Charlie Brown wore every day. If we want something dark, it’s gotta be an imperial stout.
Ray Daniels, who co-authored the definitive Brown Ale: History, Brewing, Techniques, Recipes (Brewers Publications), calls it “comfort beer” – a term that was once endearing but now sadly means “forgettable. “
But brown ale is no ordinary mediocrity to be rejected after one gulp and a dismissive drain pour.
Take a second sip, and you unfold subtle layers of flavor and aroma: the toffee of Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown, the hazelnut of Arcadia Nut Brown. Look for these nuances, and the reward is fuller, far more satisfying.
The chocolate undertones of Brooklyn Brown won’t dazzle you; they simply invite you to pull long, long sips till you’re asking for another pint. The malty wallop of Bell’s Best Brown hints at a bigger beer, a cream stout perhaps, but its light body encourages you to match it with a simple burger.
Where you once ignored it as just a sad, conflicted soul (why isn’t this dark beer more serious?), you soon find that brown ale is a complex individual who can hold an intelligent conversation. Pay attention to that wonderful toffee aside of Abita Turbodog, or the hoppy retort of Dogfish Head Indian Brown.
Look again, and you’ll find that the everyday characters in the comics section are so much more sincere than all those blowhards on the op-ed page.
Ah, you’re a good man, Charlie Brown.
Call it a case of wishful thinking, but lately I’ve spotted an upsurge in brown ale. Here’s a sixpack of newbies.
- Upslope Barrel Aged Brown Ale (Colorado). Not yet available in Pennsylvania, this canned beer was named the No. 1 new release of 2014 by Paste Magazine.
- Crooked Eye Top Hat (Hatboro). You’ll have to head to eastern Montgomery County to find this smooth, creamy brown ale, on draft only. Look also for a version that’s aged in Wild Turkey bourbon barrels.
- Freckles Angry Brown Ale (Huntingdon Valley). I wouldn’t call Naked Brewing’s winter seasonal “angry. ” Instead, its caramel and coffee notes are just a little moody.
- Ommegang Upside Brown (Cooperstown, N.Y.). It looks like a typical brown ale, but the addition of wild Brettanomyces yeast gives that familiar sweet malt flavor a funky twist.
- Saranac Chai Brown Ale (Utica, N.Y.). Another atypical brown, this one – available only in Saranac’s 12 Beers of Winter variety case – is flavored with chai spices.
- Magic Hat Snow Roller (Burlington, Vt.). While Magic Hat hasn’t rocked my world for quite a while, this pleasantly nutty brown has been a surprisingly satisfying breather between all those heavy-duty stouts and spiced ales this winter.
Drink with Joe
Join Joe Sixpack for a free sampling of brown ale, 4-6 p.m. tomorrow at Bell Beverage (2809 South Front St., South Philadelphia).