Sunday, October 9, 2011

Brown Ales of Autumn

Fall is my favorite time of year for several reasons.  My birthday falls in fall.  Football season is in full swing. And the beers of fall are some of the tastiest you can find all year.  Brown ales, which are hitting the shelves now, can have a sweet, caramely flavor that leaves you wanting more.

My local Shop Rite grocery store had cases piled high of seasonal brews. So I helped myself to a six pack of Sierra Nevada Tumbler from California and Vermont’s Long Trail Harvest.  At $7.99 each, I thought this price was a steal for a good craft beer. I thought wrong.

As is my way, I wanted to see which of these mid-sized regional brewers did the best job with this style of beer.  So I did a head to head taste test:

The Long Trail poured a copper color with a one finger head.  It had some caramel notes to the smell.  The first sip showed its creamy mouth feel. That’s when things started to go down hill.  This beer had no discernible taste.  It reminded me more of the British browns I have had, like Newcastle, that don’t stand up to a good American brown ale.  As it warmed, I began to feel like I was drinking dirty dish water.  I poured the remaining beer down the drain and opened the Tumbler.

Sierra Nevada does a solid job with its flagship pale ale and I was hoping for a similar quality with this style.  The Tumbler poured a similar copper color with a three finger head.  The nose was less sweet and more hoppy.  The taste was bitter and coffee-like.  It was not terrible, but it was not enjoyable either. There was no sweetness that I have come to expect from a brown ale.

I wasn’t going to finish this taste test with a lack luster beer. So I went down into the garage, where I keep my beer collection, and found one last bottle of Ellie’s Brown Ale.  Ellie’s is made in Colorado and, though I have never reviewed it, it is one of my favorites.  This beer pours a dark brown with a nice head.  The caramel notes jump up to greet my nose.  The first sip is heaven: chocolate beer or beer chocolate; whichever you prefer.  It has that same bitter sweet taste that makes dark chocolate so appealing. As I drink, a slight coffee taste is evident.  This is what a brown ale should taste like.

I pour the Sierra Nevada down the drain and sit back and enjoy my Ellie’s.  I’ve learned a valuable lesson today: Don’t be so quick to jump at the Mid-sized brewers offerings, especially if they are making their way into the mainstream market place (super markets).  My local beverage center allows me to mix a six so I can try different styles without breaking the bank.  Because, lets face it, good craft beer is not cheap.  The Ellie’s was about $2.00 more per six than the other two.  That’s 25% more expensive.  But I would argue that you’re getting 200% more quality from a small brewer. 
Lesson learned.  Anyone want to buy a couple of five-packs?  Cheap?


  1. Heh. I was dumb enough to bring home a sixer of Harvest from Vermont where it was more expensive than if I bought it in Jersey!

    I really don't like brown ales, but I saw it was made with maple syrup on the label. Didn't matter. I thought the beer was horrible too. Tumbler wasn't any better.

    I think its just me (and you) with some brown ales. Look elsewhere, and people seem to love both Tumbler and Harvest for some reason!

  2. Scott, I picked up a nice brown ale from The Bruery that I can't wait to try. It too is made with maple syrup. It wasn't cheap though - $12 for a 750 ml bottle. I'll let you know how it is.

  3. Ha! Autumn Maple? I've been looking for that beer for YEARS and I snagged on @ Whole Foods. Haven't tried it yet, but we should compare notes!

  4. I will be cracking open The Autumn Maple soon. Maybe we can do a co-review.