Friday, 24 October 2014 13:58

Michigan Brown Ale Face-Off

Written by  Joe Boomgaard
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The lowly brown ale never receives the love or fervent adulations that many other popular beer styles get. But that doesn’t mean that craft beer lovers should pass over brown ales. In fact, they’re often very balanced beers with malty, earthy, nutty and rich flavors. They’re also a beer that tends to be somewhat on the sweet side.

The Judges

Joe Boomgaard
Beer Czar of Revue West Michigan and Managing Editor of MiBiz.
Listens to (good) metal 24/7.

Kim Kibby
Creative Director of Revue West Michigan.
Ardent Nick Cave fan.

Nick Manes
Beer Bro of Revue West Michigan and Staff Writer at MiBiz.
Loves to “get jooky” with Danny Brown.

John Wiegand
Staff Writer and de facto “new guy” at MiBiz.
Probably listens to indie folk music while he makes quinoa on a daily basis.

The Process

The judges did a blind tasting of 10 beers and rated them based on appearance (10 points), aroma (20 points), flavor/finish (30 points), body (20 points) and overall impressions (20 points). The scores listed here are an average of the judges’ ratings based on a 100-point scale, with 100 being a perfect score.

The Brown Ales


Cabin Fever
New Holland Brewing Co., Holland
6.25% ABV
This was the top choice for three of the four judges. It pours almost coffee-colored with a good head and a smoky, earthy aroma. The flavor mirrors the aroma on this very smooth and creamy ale, which has a slightly boozy finish. “It’s really good all around,” Manes wrote. An excellent example of the style.

Score: 90.0

Coconut Brown
Blackrocks Brewery, Marquette
6.8% ABV
Pours with more head than most browns, but its true appealing quality is the complex and accessible flavor, which was sweet and malty and yet sharp like a nut. It was a standout brown upon the first sip. Very well done. “I could have this beer anytime,” Boomgaard wrote.

Score: 86.25

Bonfire Brown
Saugatuck Brewing Co., Saugatuck
5.5% ABV
Pours somewhat cloudy. The smell is slightly sweet, but it appeared that the brewer really refined this beer for its rich, malty flavor. Judges praised the beer for its balanced, hearty qualities and great mouthfeel. A solid brown ale.

Score: 82.0

Hoptown Brown
Arbor Brewing Co., Ann Arbor
7.3% ABV
This beer seemed more experimental than the others with its generous use of earthy hops that pulled through in the aroma and in the taste. It’s a nice chewy, medium-bodied beer with a dry finish. Seems like it’s a brown ale/IPA hybrid, and that’s OK by us.

Score: 80.5

Boffo Brown
Dark Horse Brewing Co., Marshall
6.5% ABV
This beer had only a slight coffee aroma, but three of the judges loved its flavor profile and abbreviated aftertaste. “It’s nutty with a nice, smooth, dry-ish finish,” Kibby wrote. However, Manes was put off by hints of banana he detected in the flavor.

Score: 72.25

Best Brown Ale
Bell’s Brewery Inc., Kalamazoo
5.8% ABV
This brown ale was pretty basic with a sweet, slightly nutty flavor. Wiegand liked its “sweet smell that comes through into the taste almost fruity.” There was not too much going on, and nothing over the top, either. A fairly light-bodied, no-frills brown.

Score: 68.75

Jon Brown
Cellar Brewing Co., Sparta
5.7% ABV
The beer definitely displayed hints of roasted coffee in the nose and the flavor. However, the judges unanimously agreed the taste did not live up to its sweet, boozy aromas. Some noted that it had a slightly metallic aftertaste.

Score: 66.25

How Now Brown Cow
Odd Side Ales, Grand Haven
6.0% ABV
Pours very dark with only a slight head. It’s an incredibly sweet-smelling beer – perhaps excessively so – that the flavor just can’t live up to. The taste also really drops off fast. Maybe this one will grow on you. “My tastebuds are confused, but I don’t mind it,” Kibby wrote.

Score: 60.75

Bellaire Brown
Short’s Brewing Co., Bellaire
7.0% ABV
This brown ale had an appearance like motor oil with almost no head and a buttery/boozy or almost toasted smell with hints of bourbon. The smell was better than the taste here, which was very malty with a bit of caramel. “Just not much going on,” Manes wrote.

Score: 53.0

Lift Bridge Brown
Keweenaw Brewing Co., Houghton
5.0% ABV
The taste was just plain off. The flavor seemed watered down, slightly sour, and harsh – and not in a good way. (Note: A check of the can afterwards found a date of June 24, 2014. Given the age, we’d give this one a pass for now and look for a fresher example.)

Score: 29.75


Beer Briefs


• Big Lushious, a chocolate raspberry stout, will be the eleventh beer in Founders Brewing Co.’s “Backstage Series” of limited-release bottles. Described as “a deep, rich stout that’s packed with flavor,” Big Lushious clocks in at 7.8 percent ABV and will be available in 750-mL bottles. Look for the beer to be released Nov. 24 with a suggested retail price of $14.99 per bottle.


• In other Founders news, the brewery also announced it planned to reintroduce Black Rye as its latest seasonal beer starting in January. The beer, brewed for less than a year circa 2006, is a dry-hopped dark ale brewed with “copious amounts” of rye malt. It will be available on draft and in four-packs from January through March.


• Brewery Vivant plans two limited releases of its own. Late last month, the brewery started offering cans of its new Smoky Wheat (a pub-only release) and Pepper in the Rye (formerly known as Sgt. Peppercorn). Smoky Wheat is all about the German malt bill and clocks in at 5.1 percent ABV. Meanwhile, Pepper in the Rye returns to distribution at the pub and across Michigan with the same recipe that earned it a cult-like following, the company says. Expect a “spicy, earthy, rye ale” that’s made with green peppercorns.


• West Coast craft brewer Deschutes Brewery of Bend, Ore. started distribution in West Michigan this fall. The company launched in the state with its highly lauded Black Butte Porter, Mirror Pond Pale Ale, Inversion IPA and Jubelale (a winter seasonal). Look for the brand in craft beer stores and on draft across West Michigan. The company also said it plans to ship some of its reserve limited-release beers to the market.

Beer Event

Benton Harbor-based The Livery will be hosting its annual “December Darkness” party on Saturday, Dec. 6. The event features six bourbon barrel-aged beers ranging in style from weizenbock, doppelbock, imperial stout, imperial black ale, oatmeal stout and wheat wine. Sampler flights with five-ounce pours of a choice of four beers will be available for $16. The Livery will also have a limited bottle release of its Cherry Friek wild/sour ale, made with 30 pounds of tart cherries per barrel, and two other beers. Free admission from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Visit for more information.  


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