When was the last time you enjoyed a brown ale? If the answer is recently — and by that, we mean in the last half-decade — wicked! You get props. But if you can’t recall, or if you never have at all, we can understand. This timeless style stays criminally slept on by beer enthusiasts, and that needs to change. While apt, the unappealing name certainly does no favors for marketability: Drab is, quite literally, a shade of brown.
Let’s forget the dull appellation, though, and focus on what makes brown ales shine. They are subtle, balanced, and effortlessly delicious, which are qualities worth visiting time and time again. They are easygoing and versatile beers, equipped to satisfy during all seasons and drinking situations. Aside from their hue, they can be distinguished by malt prominence, which provides flavors like chocolate, caramel, and toffee. Many possess a dry finish and pleasingly sweet aroma, and some have nuts or coffee added in the brewing process.
If you want to dive into the brown ale’s origin story, more complex characteristics, and cultural variations (for example, American versions tend to have a higher alcohol content and more assertive hop presence while the Belgians offer an aged, sour interpretation), check out our Beer 101 guide.
To determine the best brown ales available now, we asked brewery owners and beer makers from around the country to share their favorites. Ahead, you’ll find 13 stellar examples in the category, from the widely distributed to the locally available to an award-winning recipe from a beloved late homebrewer.
The Best Brown Ales, According to Brewers:
- AleSmith Nut Brown Ale
- Real Ale Brewhouse Brown
- Lazy Magnolia Southern Pecan
- Smuttynose Old Brown Dog
- Civil Life American Brown
- Newcastle Brown Ale
- Woodstock Inn Pig’s Ear
- Mike “Tasty” McDole’s Janet’s Brown Ale
- Newburgh Brown Ale
- Mother’s Three Blind Mice
- Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale
- Cigar City Maduro
- Leifmans Oud Bruin
“I would go with AleSmith Nut Brown Ale. The nice thing about it is that it’s been a mainstay for a while, and it’s extremely consistent. It has an amazing mouthfeel with a nice peatiness. It’s one of the beers we modeled our Davy Brown Ale after.” —Jaime Dietenhofer, owner, Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co., Buellton, Calif.
“Brown ales are a delicious, albeit underappreciated style. I love Real Ale’s Brewhouse brown ale for its flavorful, well-balanced malt character. The toffee, coffee, and chocolate flavors come through without being too weighty. The beer is part of Real Ale’s OG lineup, and it’s a great example of a classic, craft beer style.” —Will Jaquiss, founder and brewmaster, Meanwhile Brewing Co., Austin, Texas
“Lazy Magnolia’s Southern Pecan. This nut brown [brew] made with pecans inspired me many, many years ago— I first had it in 2007 — to start experimenting with nuts in my homebrew days, and influenced a lot of what I’m known for today.” —Kyle Harrop, founder, Horus Aged Ales, Oceanside, Calif.
“Being a New Englander, I have very fond memories of drinking Old Brown Dog from Smuttynose Brewing Company. For me, it’s the perfect springtime beer. There’s tons of malt character up front followed by some brown sugar and nutty aromatics, all balanced by a firm bitterness that’s quite pleasant. It’s a beer that I don’t drink as often as I should, and is truly a perfect example of the style.” —Patrick Chavanelle, senior R&D brewer, Allagash Brewing Company, Portland, Maine
“Those of us in St. Louis have known for years that Civil Life Brewing Company makes one of the finest brown ales in the country with its flagship, American Brown. Deep brown and medium-bodied with notes of coffee, cocoa, and caramel, and finishes with a bright citrus hop note from Cascades.” —Jared Williamson, lead brewer, Schlafly Beer, St. Louis
“My favorite brown ale isn’t very novel or sensational, but it is an awesome beer. Newcastle Brown Ale is a classic for a reason: It is a solid and dependable brown ale, and pretty well is a benchmark for the style. Moderate in alcohol with a reliable malt backbone, it’s just a great beer and a legend for a reason.” —Kevin McGee, president, Anderson Valley Brewing Company, Boonville, Calif.
“My favorite brown ale comes from Woodstock Inn Brewery in Woodstock, N.H. It’s called Pig’s Ear, and it’s perfectly balanced in its unassuming nature. It’s light and nutty with moderate carbonation, and it’s malt-forward featuring an excellent selection of grains. It’s perfectly suited for any season in New Hampshire and is often accessible. I love that it’s part of Woodstock’s flagship lineup, which is not something you see too often anymore. There’s another version with almost twice the ABV called Double Pig’s Ear that also hits the spot.” —Dara Klotz, brewer, Exhibit ‘A’ Brewing Company, Framingham, Mass.
“It’s hard to beat the dry walnut character of Sam Smith’s Nut Brown Ale, and Dogfish Head’s Palo Santo Marron was eye-opening to my younger self about what craft beer could be. But my top pick has to be Janet’s Brown by the late, great homebrewer Mike ‘Tasty’ McDole. This hoppy brown ale brings the classic toffee flavors you’d expect but adds a kick of bitterness from some classic American hops, making it one of the rare beers in the middle of the color spectrum that packs appreciable IBUs. Since [McDole’s] passing in 2020, several commercial breweries, including Russian River, have brewed batches — and homebrew shop MoreBeer! sells kits — of this award-winning recipe in order to raise money for cancer research in memory of Tasty.” —Daniel Gadala-Maria, head brewer, Finback Brewery, Glendale, N.Y.
“Newburgh’s brown, because it makes me happy every time I drink it.” —Augie Carton, co-founder, Carton Brewing Company, Atlantic Highlands, N.J.
“Hands down, Three Blind Mice from Mother’s Brewing in Springfield, Mo. All day, every day. It’s the beer I look for every time I’m back home in the Midwest. It’s like a familiar hug that brings me back to why I fell in love with craft beer. The smooth, malty toffee mixed with caramel and a subtle hop finish is the perfect example of an American brown ale that keeps you wanting to open one more bottle. It’s literally the perfect beer for outdoor activities, tailgating, or any day that ends in y.” —Annie Engel, brewer, Monkish Brewing Co., Torrance, Calif.
“Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale, to me, is the quintessential English brown ale. Light, malty, and with just enough hop and roast to balance everything out, [it’s] a venerable ale that stands tall with its gold foil and classic label. It’s always a staple in my beer fridge.”—Chris Kinast, Head Brewer, Perennial on Lockwood, Webster Groves, Mo.
“I enjoy Maduro by Cigar City. It’s a much darker and more robust brown ale than you typically see from the style. There’s a rich mouthfeel from the use of oats in the recipe, which helps to boost the malt flavors of toffee, dried fruit, slight espresso, and sweet tobacco. A rocky, mousse-like head is a nice contrast to the dark brown color.” —Isaiah Mangold, innovation brewer, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Chico, Calif.
“I thought a lot about this one! Here’s an unorthodox opinion, but I feel strongly about it. My favorite brown ale is neither an English nor American style, although there are some truly great ones out there. My great love is Liefmans Oud Bruin, a fruity, aged, sour brown ale. It’s an exceptionally complex beer that is hard to sip, as you want to finish a bottle in five minutes flat. Caramel and roasted qualities with lactic and acidic sour flavors; comes in at 5 percent ABV. It’s a classic. I’ve been obsessed with this beer for a very long time. Some would say it isn’t a brown ale by their definition, but hey, it’s in the name: oud bruin is old brown in Flemish, so it’s a brown ale.” —Steve Gonzalez, senior manager of brewing and innovation (small batch), Stone Brewing, Escondido, Calif.