Getting modern craft brewers to brew a brown ale is like getting the kids on my son's Parks and Rec basketball team to practice lay-ups instead of chunking three-point and half-court shots. There's so much interest and emphasis on trickery that the fundamentals get overlooked. In today's world of double-dry-hopped hazy IPAs, the once-elemental brown ale style is endangered. In the early days of "microbrews," there were brewpubs whose entire lineups read like autumnal rainbows: golden ale, amber ale, red ale and brown ale.
Fortunately, while scant, some brewers are keeping the simple-to-execute yet elegant- to-quaff brown ale on tap and, even rarer, available to take home in cans.
Among the few Oregon breweries keeping the style alive, and canning to boot, are Block 15 Brewing Co. from Corvallis whose English-style brown ale Squirrel Stash enters distribution this week, and Eugene's Coldfire Brewing Company, whose Little Brown Owl leans more American-style brown ale; but the once-a-year batch is already sold out. Crux Fermentation Project currently has Dark Snap brown ale on tap and Boneyard Beer will soon release its imperial maple brown ale (meaning it's stronger and, uh, maple-ier than a traditional example of the style). That leaves Cascade Lakes Brewing Company, which is the only Oregon brewery that brews and sells a brown—in its case, 20" Brown Ale—year-round.
"It's a great style; it needs to be around," says Cascade Lakes Brewmaster Ryan Schmiege. Though he admits, "It's a harder sell."
As for the above distinction between English and American style browns, in a nutshell, the style originated in England and is sometimes called a nut brown ale, not because it features nuts but because the malt bill lends a nutty, earthy characteristic. It evolved among American brewers to replace English hops such as East Kent Goldings or Fuggles for American hop varietals that are sharper, pinier, and overall more bitter, such as Cascade or Willamette hops. On rare occasion, you may find a beer called a Texas Brown that's essentially a brown IPA, but, like Flanders Brown Ale (a.k.a. Oud Bruin), that's a brown of a different stripe.
What makes a straightforward brown ale so utilitarian is, in Schmiege's words, that it's got "approachable alcohol, you can have a couple and not be concerned about getting drunk. It's also not too bitter or too full-bodied in terms of drinkability, yet it's complex. The malt character makes it a great daily beer that pairs with foods really well."
From grilled or smoked meats to cheddar Stilton cheeses, it's a beer that straddles the line between playing a starring or supporting role. Brown ales are the blue jeans of the beer world, which makes it harder to fathom why the style's falling out of favor.
Crux's Dark Snap borrows elements from both sides of the Atlantic, complementing the hit of chocolate malts with Willamette and Sterling hops. Marketing director Jason Randles calls it, "Perfect for the season without having to go full stout mode." Randles mentioned that the beer has twice cracked the pub's top 10 sellers among its 25 draft lines, "but IPAs and lagers still outsell it by a mile."
Adds Crux's Assistant Brewmaster Grant McFarren, "Locally, there seems to be a bigger push toward dark lagers rather than dark ales such as browns. Oh, to live in a world where the beer aisle is balanced."
Coldfire's Little Brown Owl also, "Cuts a path between the hoppier, malt forward American (brown ale) and the soft, quaffability of the traditional English style," says head brewer Stephen Hughes. While Coldfire uses a traditional Maris Otter malt base, it also uses Pacific Northwest Sabro hops that throw coconut flavors for an interesting approach to introducing nuttiness. Incidentally, while Little Brown Owl and most Oregon/American brown ales top 5% ABV, Block 15's remains true to English-style by weighing in at 4.5%.
And Cascade Lakes' 20" Brown is a well-built, malt-centered ale that also straddles the UK/US divide by featuring English malts and yeast yet American hops (Centennial and Willamette). While the style is seemingly on the verge of extinction, thankfully it remains a longstanding brand in Cascade Lakes' core lineup, so whenever you find it, it should be fresh, especially now when sales pick up in late fall and early winter as is seasonally appropriate.