Brown ales are the unsung heroes of beer. They do not announce themselves with the fanfare of the aggressive India pale ales, and they are very different from the red lagers that macrobreweries have made so popular. Happily, though, you can find plenty of brown ales at almost any beer store.
Their characteristic color is as old as beer itself, and the brown ale as we know it today emerged as a drink of the laboring class in England, during the 1700s. Although brown ale is not as dark as the black porter and stout styles, it is believed to have been a precursor to both.
The benchmark of the style is the English brown ale, which has a copper color and rich mahogany highlights. Its flavor has caramel and chocolate malty tones, with a hoppy bitterness that is not overpowering. The most notable import is Newcastle Brown Ale (Newcastle upon Tyne), which was first brewed in 1927 by Col. Jim Porter. It remains one of Britain's best-selling beers.
Meanwhile, the northern English brown ale is a sibling to the basic English brown. It has deeper reddish hues, with a lingering background that tastes nutty but not burnt. The standard northern English brown is Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale (Tadcaster).
My favorite example of the northern English brown style is made right here in Wisconsin: the Nut Brown Ale from South Shore Brewery, in Ashland. Available on tap at Quivey's Grove, it offers brilliant copper hues, a soft-tan head, firm caramel aroma and body, and finishes that are clean and crisp. Capital Brewery's Brown Ale (Middleton) is another good example of the northern style, one that emphasizes malt.
Generally speaking, American versions of brown ale range from light brown to dark brown in color. They usually are clear and medium-bodied, and often they are dominated by hoppy bitterness and citrus notes. American amber and red ales are sometimes considered interchangeable with brown ales, because they are much the same color and have a similar flavor. Purists, though, might argue for these being distinctive styles.
Among local brewers, JT Whitney's Badger Red Ale, with its clean, brilliant copper color and great balance, is a mainstay of the west-side brewpub. Downtown, the Great Dane is currently serving Aaron's Amber, in honor of home run king Hank Aaron. It is a little light, but a good, safe way to try this style. The Memorial Union's Rathskeller Amber Ale (Gray Brewing, Janesville) is also light on flavor, but relaxing on the Terrace improves the taste of all beers.
On the east side, Ale Asylum's Madtown Nut Brown is exceptional for its hazy brown body, smoothly dominated by caramel, and for its lightly nutty, subtly dry finish. Co-owned by brewmaster Dean Coffey, formerly of Angelic Brewing, Ale Asylum held its grand opening the week before last. All of the brewpub's debut beers are well done, and they set a high standard for local beer.
Huber Brewing, in Monroe, makes Berghoff Dark, a bronze beer with smooth chocolate malt flavors. New Glarus Brewing Company's brown ale, Fat Squirrel, is a little tame, overall, but its flavors of roasted nut and caramel stand out. (It's great to hear that New Glarus beers will be getting a new home: Last week the village board approved the brewery's $19 million expansion plan.)
As for regional brewers, the Nut Brown Ale from Goose Island (Chicago) gets high marks for its dry chocolate tones and light roasted ending. Over in Port Washington, Harbor City Brewing's Main Street Brown Ale has bronze color and light hoppiness, yet is smooth and well balanced.
Pub Brown Ale from Sprecher (Glendale) is a quiet, subdued beer, while JuncTown Brown Ale from Central Waters (Junction City) has some firm, caramel maltiness but a distractingly antagonistic sourness in the background.
A relatively new brewery, Falls Brewing (Oconto Falls), has a brown with a great roasted-nut background. It is bottle-conditioned, which means that it continues fermenting in the container. That can make for difficult pouring, since the head is explosive.
Rocky's Revenge from Tyranena Brewing (Lake Mills) is a brown ale fermented in oak barrels that, in their former life, were used to make bourbon. This creates assertive sweetness that complements the malt. Rocky's has become a favorite of local aficionados.
Last, how's this for an indelible image? Big Sky Brewing (Missoula, Mont.) makes a brown ale called Moose Drool. It has immensely malty aroma and flavor, and you just might salivate over it yourself.
Many of these brewers will be on hand at the Great Taste of the Midwest, which takes place in Olin-Turville Park on Saturday. So if you're one of the lucky 5,000 who scored tickets (they sold out in minutes last May), hoist a brown ale for those who didn't.