Yes, this is another one of those things where I pick three random representatives of a style and compare them. What can I say? I'm an academic, comparing approaches comes naturally. And heck, maybe more people will read the site if I can dig a minor niche for myself.
First up is the Pub Brown Ale from Sprecher, a very English-sounding beer that could not possibly look more German. It's a pub ale with a big fuckin' griffin on a shield on the (16oz) bottle design, which just seems wrong somehow. Don't be fooled, though, this thing comes from neither side of the channel. Instead, Sprecher hails from the decidedly less European Glendale, Wisconsin; there they make a number of beers and sodas. I've never tried the beers, but I've had a few of the sodas. I wasn't wowed by their orange soda or ginger ale, but their root beer is heavenly; it'll never top the one from Boylan, which is as complex and serious and magnificent as a psych rock show, but the Sprecher is its sweeter, easy-to-drink alternative whenever I'm feeling a little punk. It's this root beer, then, that encouraged me to hunt down one of their beers (once I found out that they made some).
Oh my, a twist-off cap. It's been a while since I've seen one of those.
Well, it pours rather lightly, with a nice coppery color (not quite brown, but who's complaining) and a one-finger cream head that quickly dies off. It looks like a dark ginger ale, really. The aroma is very promising indeed: not much in the way of hops, but there's plenty of pale malts cut through with caramel, sassafras, and a little bit of earthiness. It's not particularly complex, but it's pleasant enough.
Hm, the taste is in a solid B- territory. It's good stuff, it's the sort of thing I'd drink tons of during a night on the town - "pub ale" is exactly the right term. There's just no real sparkle, though. The front edge is a slightly pearlike sourness, which evolves into a nice soil-and-syrup sort of taste. It's basically your classic earthy/bready brown ale flavor profile. The hops, too, are pretty by-the-book, but they're way turned down even compared to the Bell's brown ale from a while back. Even the mouthfeel is light.
So, then: Sprecher went for simple and mild, and they achieved it. For what it is, then, this brew is pretty good, although I wish they'd been a bit more ambitious. It does strike me as a perfect beer for at least one thing, though: converting the people who've been drinking Pabst their whole lives. Think of this, then, as a beginner beer, not so much a rival to the masters as a (superior) substitute for Newcastle.
Onto the Goose Island Nut Brown, then, which I am on record as declaring not anywhere near as good as their Naughty Goose. It is cheaper and easier to come by, though, and that counts for something. Like all Goose Island brews (excepting the Christmas Ale), this is immaculately packaged in a lovely black-on-brown label. The boys with laptops deserve praise for this one. Also, I should note that I've been saving this bottle roughly since September, so it may be a bit old now.
Well, it pours quite a bit darker than the Sprecher; sort of an auburn, rather than a rust. The head's a tad bit less intense, somewhere just north of a half-finger - I'm chalking this up to the slightly stronger 5.3% ABV. The aroma is very sweet, even sweeter than the Sprecher, but also less detailed (if that's possible). I mainly get caramel, lots and lots of it, with a touch of English hops mixed in. When given some agitation it opens up a tad more, offering more of a coffee aroma; but really, if you're looking for complexity this isn't your beer.
With the taste, I'm feeling even more guilty for accusing the Sprecher of simplicity. This stuff is stupid simple. Most of the hops seem to come through in an initial bitter jab, after which there's nothing but thick milk chocolatey malts. The aftertaste is slightly more dry, but the rest of the time this stuff is shamelessly sugar-driven. And the texture is a bit heavier than the Sprecher as well, although by beer standards I'd still only call it medium-bodied.
I like this beer; it's sweet and kind of unassuming, like the shy kid in class. As a beer, on its own, I'd rank it above the Sprecher, but it also doesn't seem to me to be much of a brown ale. In a lot of ways this is much more comparable to a really mild porter or a sweet stout. Thus it runs into something like the same problem as the Flossmoor Pullman I reviewed last year: it's a good beer, but if I really wanted a brown ale I'd have to go elsewhere.
Last on my list is Bad Penny from Big Boss Brewing. This is another one I picked up from my trip east: these guys make their home in Raleigh, so good luck finding one of these suckers out in Chi-town. It's almost worth it entirely for the bottle alone, though, because it's fucking awesome. It's like they took a movie poster from 1972 featuring a sassy sister making eyes, and just drained all the colors out of it except brown. Yes, I know that doesn't sound appealing, but it works. It even has a bottled-on date: November '09. Well, then - the Goose Island was still okay, so hopefully the months of mellowing have done some good here as well.
It pours very easily indeed, with a moderate brown tone about halfway between the Sprecher and the Goose Island. The head is minimal - maybe a quarter finger tops. Even that's gone after a few seconds, leaving only an off-white floaty foam. The nose is actually quite similar to the other two as well. It's a lovely mix of caramel, nuttiness - well, hell, you've heard this before. I'd say it's right in between the other two, aroma wise, although closer to the Sprecher and perhaps a bit more subdued.
But then there's the taste. Wow, it's not what I expected at all. What strikes me first is that it's surprisingly watery - not that the other two were ultra-creamy, but this one doesn't cover the mouth at all. That's not to say it's bad, though, because the taste makes up for it. It's strikingly bitter, much moreso than the others. Espresso grinds hit right up front and hold on tight while some malty, dark chocolate sweetness slides in behind them. Coffee remains the dominant flavor right up until the end, where the hops deliver an earthy little nibble and let things slide off. The aftertaste is surprisingly long, despite the watery texture: once again it's mostly bitter coffee and chocolate, with (maybe) some almonds to provide relief.
For a night out with the boys I'd choose one of the other two; this is just a little too striking to work for that role. But it's got its own charms, and - in the end - I think I prefer it. Certainly I admire it more as a beer. Bad Penny is like the Bruce Lee of English browns: it packs the maximum amount of force into the minimal effort. It's not a heavy beer, yet features a flavor profile I've found lacking in brews going well into the 8% range. I'm not sure how much use the world has for a beer like this, and I'm not sure whether I myself will ever have it again. But I'm glad it exists.
So: we've got a much narrower spread than I expected here, and not a bad beer in the lot. The Sprecher is boring but also unassuming, the workman of the group, while the Goose Island is pleasant and sweet (but not really properly brownalelich) and the Big Boss is a pint-sized monster (which is a little too watery and not great for pub nights). So: which one should you buy?
Honestly? None of these. Well, try them once for shits and giggles, sure. But if you want a fantastic brown ale, buy the Samuel Smith or the Naughty Goose or Dogfish Head's India Brown. And if you want a relatively cheap, delicious, mild, easily available example of the style for poker nights, the correct decision is in fact Ellie's Brown from Avery. (You can't miss it, it's got an adorable lab on the label.) That's a beer I'll get around to reviewing it one of these days. As it is, though, these three - good as they are - can't beat the standard.
Sprecher Pub Brown Ale
Summary: A beginner's brown - not bad, just not all that much going on. Your dad will love it.
Goose Island Nut Brown Ale
Summary: Think of this as more of a sweet stout with English-style hops than a real brown. Still good, though.
Big Boss Bad Penny Brown Ale
Summary: The most creative and assertive beer here. Bittersweet, emphasis on the bitter. The wateriness really bugs me, though.