Nut brown ales may not get all the attention that the hop-monster beers get. However, the style certainly deserves credit for introducing many to the current microbrewing renaissance. Nut browns celebrate the pleasures of malt, so much that they are often considered a gateway for nascent beer enthusiasts. They've certainly lured many away from a life of drinking homogenous macros.
This is how my early fascination with small local breweries began. On a trip to up to Lake Superior in the mid 1990s, I stopped by South Shore Brewery in Ashland, where I met brewmaster Bo Belanger. At that time, the brewpub was located in the old Soo Line Railroad Depot. After a devastating fire in 2000, it moved to the L.C. Wilmarth building, another historic Ashland brownstone that dates back to 1895.
Over the years, Belanger's Nut Brown Ale has been the focus of my vacations to that part of Wisconsin. But you don't have to go there to get it. Nut Brown Ale finds its way to Madison in bottles and even occasionally on tap in some of the city's more dedicated beer hangouts. When I'm forced to pick a favorite overall beer, this nut brown is always at the top of my list.
What is it? Nut Brown Ale from South Shore Brewery of Ashland, Wisconsin.
Style: The Nut Brown Ale is a style known for its maltiness, with little or no hop aroma. The malty tones and light sweetness may also have hints of nuttiness or toasted flavor. These brews are often reddish-brown to dark-brown in color. They are smooth, medium-bodied beers. The brown ale style has been around for a long time, and is often attributed to having evolved from its darker cousin, the porter. Nut browns are commonly 4.5%-5.0% ABV.
Background: For the past five years, South Shore brewmaster Belanger has been transitioning his brewery's operation to use more local ingredients. Today, all of the base malt that is used to make his beers comes from Wisconsin-grown barley, and nearly all of that comes from 400 acres of farmland within 5-7 miles of his Ashland brewery. One harvested, Belanger has it shipped by rail to Thunder Bay, Ontario, where it's malted.
Depending upon what Belanger is making at the time, those local grains can account for 90% of the total grist for a given beer. The remaining portion of non-Wisconsin components are specialty malts that vary by beer style. He also uses Wisconsin-grown hops when he can get them. Belanger estimates local hops make up about 35% of what he'll use this year throughout all of his beers.
South Shore Nut Brown is made with about 70% local barley. Belanger adds a few other specialty malts that include caramel and chocolate for color and a distinctive aromatic malt that lends the nutty biscuit-like aroma and flavor. This beer has been a big seller for South Shore since it opened as a brewpub in 1995. It's has earned flagship status, and makes up over three quarters of the brewery's total production.
Belanger is hoping his beer will be available more often in southern Wisconsin. To accomplish that, he's currently expanding his brewery's packaging operations to a second location near Washburn where he hopes he will making beer by December.
South Shore Nut Brown Ale is sold in the Madison in six-packs for $10-11. However, it's a beer that can be hard to find because the brewery really isn't that big, and Belanger seems to have enough trouble keeping up with the demands of his Ashland and Bayfield county clientele. "Madison is on a plane of its own," says Belanger. "It's where most craft beer is being consumed in Wisconsin, so you need to be there."
South Shore Nut Brown Ale is distributed locally by New Berlin-based Beechwood Sales and Service. The best bet for finding it with any regularity is to look for it is at the east-side Woodman's or Riley's Wines of the World. But beware of six-packs sitting outside of the cooler. This is a beer that has to travel a long way to get here, and, like most craft beers, it should be kept cold at the point of sale.
- Aroma: A firm malty nose. Appearance: Deep copper to brown and lightly hazy. A thick bubbly and rocky tan head.
- Texture: Medium-bodied and round texture.
- Taste: A solid caramel maltiness that builds. The aromatic biscuit malts offer a light toffee-nutty background.
- Finish/Aftertaste: A malty ending, but overall clean and doesn't linger on the palate.
Glassware: As there's plenty of aroma and a thick marbled head, this beer will stand up in almost any glass. Nut browns are often served in standard American bar pints or an English nonic glass. Both work, but neither add much to the experience (or any beer for that matter). To bring attention to the nutty aromatics, try it in a Willi Becher with its inward taper near the lip to focus it all under your nose.
Pairs well with: The malty sweetness and light toasted nutty tones make it a good meal beer. It will match well with entrées of modest, not overly sweet, flavors like roasted meats and barbecue. For cheese, try it with Carr Valley's Sweet Vanilla Cardona. The sweetness of the vanilla really helps bring out the toffee and nuttiness of the beer.
Rating: Four Bottle Openers (out of four)
The Verdict: Some might accuse me of having limited brand loyalty when it comes to craft beer. That's because I'm always looking for a new brew, something that I've never heard of before. However, that not the case with South Shore Nut Brown. It's among the handful of brews I consider "game over" beers instead of an endless scavenger hunt for flavor and body.
South Shore Nut Brown makes my short-list of favorites. Anyone who has had the opportunity to travel to the brewpub in Ashland where it is made knows that the journey there adds to making it seem a special, rare find. There's also the feeling of satisfaction that comes from sipping a South Shore Nut Brown from the porch of the Hotel Chequamegon while looking out towards the waters of Lake Superior; it's one of the great experiences that all Wisconsin beer travelers should try to enjoy.
When this beer is fresh it can be exceptional. I certainly watch for it locally and buy a six-pack from time to time. But, I've also been a little disappointed lately when retailers don't keep it cold prior to selling.
What makes South Shore Nut Brown such a great beer? Well, it's very flavorful, it has brilliant color, and with a light- to medium-body, one six-pack is never enough. It offers inviting malty sweetness while remaining light on the palate, and it's not too strong at 5% ABV. But what stands out most is the distinctive light underpinning of toffee-nuttiness that adds a biscuit-like sweetness without being thick or syrupy. The use of Willamette hops helps in this regard, keeping that maltiness in check. It's a lesson in how good a smooth malty beer can be.