civil life brewing co.​’s american brown ale photo by dylan mosley

An ode to Civil Life Brewing Co.​’s American Brown Ale

In 2017, newly arrived in St. Louis, Manny Negron was eager to explore the craft beer scene. In a brewers’ city that was excitedly exploring New England IPAs, foeder-aged wild ales and pastry stouts, the last thing Negron expected to find himself drinking was an American brown ale. “You hear about a brown ale, and it’s not the sexiest beer in the world,” said Negron, a former general manager at Craft Beer Cellar who will open Little Lager in Princeton Heights in summer 2023. However, friends kept pushing him toward one beer in particular: Civil Life Brewing Co.’s American Brown Ale. “You're like, ‘I’ve got to know why everyone is talking about this beer,’” he said. “And it was great.”

Negron was only the latest, and far from the last, to join an unofficial fan club whose ranks have swelled steadily since Civil Life introduced its American Brown in 2011. The American Brown quickly became the South City brewery’s flagship beer, and for a time it was the only Civil Life brew available outside of Civil Life’s brewpub. St. Louis has a fondness for the eccentric, but the idiosyncrasy of a flagship brown ale would count for little if the beer itself wasn’t so bloody good.

This is a beer for all seasons and occasions, neither a beer you need to be in the right mood for nor a high-ABV heavyweight that might leave you tipsy after one or two. It’s sessionable, but it’s also a beer you can nurse, allowing space for its depth of flavors to unfold, rise and fall with each sip. “You have these really beautiful notes of chocolate and toasted grain and caramel malts, but it's easy,” said beer writer Katie Herrera. “I'd like to argue that the flavor profile is super complex, but it's perfectly clean and balanced and conjures up the want of having several, especially when you're enjoying yourself.”

This is a brewer’s beer, and the American Brown’s paucity of imitators speaks volumes. “A lot of breweries in the St. Louis area don't have a brown ale because they know Civil Life has got it,” said Negron. According to Narrow Gauge Brewing Co. founder and head brewer Jeff Hardesty, the American Brown’s reputation extends well beyond St. Louis. “When brewers come into town, they want to try it,” said Hardesty.

illustration by vidhya nagarajan

Abbey Spencer, head brewer at Third Wheel Brewing, believes the Civil Life American Brown exemplifies the best version of what an American brown ale can be. Spencer teaches a sensory class to students across the country as part of St. Louis University’s Brewing Science and Operations program and frequently singles out the American Brown.

“It's such a great teaching beer for me, but it's also outstanding and approachable,” she said. “Even though it’s a dark-colored beer, you're not going to get a bunch of roasted coffee – it's going to be caramel and toasty and nutty and easy and approachable, very fall-like flavors. The hop component is interesting. It's citrusy, sometimes a little floral, maybe a little pine-y, but not to an overwhelming point. The malt is complex and interesting, the hops are complex and interesting, but nothing outshines the other.”

For brewers, consistency stands out as one of the American Brown’s greatest assets. It’s Civil Life head brewer Dylan Mosley’s job to hold to those standards, but Troy Meier, founder and former president of STL Hops Homebrew Club, said that’s just one of Mosley’s skills. “We tease him all the time, we call him ‘the Malt Whisperer’ because I’ve never met a brewer that uses more different types of malts in a beer and comes up with such a well-balanced beer,” Meier said.

Always there, but never boring, the American Brown doesn’t scream for your attention. From the succinct name to the literalism of its packaging – the Civil Life logo on a chocolate-brown can – it’s just there, being itself and waiting for us to come back to it once we’ve gotten over the latest shiny new beer trend. “It’s the least flashy beer to come out of St. Louis in the grand scheme of things,” said Herrera.

If a flagship brown ale is an outlier, an oddity among breweries, should we be surprised we’ve fallen so hard as a city for Civil Life’s American Brown? Of course not, and we don’t care if that offends anyone. We revel in bucking convention, and we take pride in our homegrown eccentrics, especially those whose inspiration and excellence mirrors this humble, mighty brown ale.

Civil Life Brewing Co., 3714 Holt Ave., St. Louis,

Tags : Beer