Friday Night Blue Collar Brew Review – Dirty Helen Tavern Style Brown Ale


For tonight’s after-work brewski, I’ve chosen one of the three sixpacks I purchased last week at that Village Liquor store in New Lenox. two sixpacks I helped influence stocking at the MBS.

What drew me to choose this particular brand of beverage was the artwork on the carton. It depicted a woman, obviously from the 1920s or ’30s wearing one of those typical bowl-style hats that the ladies of that era wore. The picture appeared to be a pencil drawing and the woman in question was wearing a snarky facial expression and a low-cut dress. The name of this beer was Dirty Helen Tavern Style Brown Ale. That must be Helen in the picture. In addition, hanging off one of the bottles like a Do Not Disturb motel doorknob announcement, was a handbill which touted 2009 GABF Gold Medal Winner! Best American Brown Ale. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner.

Dirty Helen sixThe beer came from east of the Michigan Lake, having been made in Noblesville, Indiana by the Barley Island Brewing Company. I must say that this is the first I’ve heard of them and Dirty Helen. It’s refreshing to get a beer that’s unavailable in Morris. (I must find that beer distributor salesguy again and interview him on just how distributing beer in Illinois works.)

The label on the bottle said:

Bold, delicious handcrafted ale with the reputation of a legendary tavern owner.

My curiosity hit warp drive. Who was this Dirty Helen?

In my owns words, let me sum it up what I found out about Dirty Helen:

Dirty Helen was the nickname given to Helen Cromwell, the owner of the Sunflower Inn in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from the ‘30s through the ‘50s. She was a one time gal-pal of Al Capone who helped him along the lines of rumrunning and prostitution.

Helen had the foulest mouth in the state. Her favorite drinks to serve the clientele were House of Lords scotch and Old Fitzgerald bourbon. Once, when a group of sailors visited her establishment, one of the boys ordered a martini. What ensued was one of the most vile, and foul worded tirades the young lad and witnesses had ever heard. To say she cussed like a sailor was an understatement. She and the lad remained long time friends after that. The legend fits the picture on the bottle. We salute the Barley Island boys for dedicating this beer in the name of Dirty Helen.

One other point of interest has me a little confused. This is the first time I’ve encountered the “tavern style” moniker for a beer style. Nowhere on Beer Advocate could I find what a tavern style was. Google yielded little else. Chalk another one up to the boys at Barley Island for coming up with this beer style.

Let’s finally get down to business and have some beer, shall we? With the picture of a foul-mouthed broad in a tavern ambience of the 1930s in my head, I popped open the first bottle (no twist-off) and poured.

Dirty Helen foamOn pouring the first glass, the head started to form up right away. Up it came and I had to hold off from pouring the entire bottle contents into the glass as there was just no room. The head came up a good two inches’ worth of thick creamy foam. The beer was a nice dark brown in color and had a lot of medium sized bubbles rising to the top. The aroma was that of a nice dark malt. This should be good.

The taste was very, very interesting. Many flavors came out. The maltiness came first followed a microsecond later by both the sweet and the hoppiness. The sip finished on a nice hoppy note. This was quite the surprise.

Once again, I’m reminded of the hoppiness of an American pale ale in each sip of this beer. The malts are plentiful and robust giving off a tongue pleasing sweetness. The hop kick at the end is the uvula slap that reminds you you’re drinking a serious beer. Sort of Dirty Helen’s foul mouthed barb as the concoction is finally swallowed.

As the sips progressed, I started to get used to the sweet and bitter of this lusty brew. The blendation of the ingredients of this beer was absolutely perfect, making for an adventure of tastes right in my mouth. Each of the flavors stood out but none in particular stood out. We have another case of gustatory synergy where the outcome is greater than the sum of the parts.

  • Of note: Since the beer comes up with a rich, foamy head every time, the last little bit in the bottle has to wait for some room to become available in the glass. I had noticed that upon pouring the remainder of the bottle, the beer in the glass clouded up. I noticed the same thing with my last homebrew. It must be bottle conditioned. The cloudiness came from the remains of the spent yeast. It added nor deleted anything from the taste. That gave credence to the unprinted homebrew-style bottlecaps each beer was sealed with.

I was surprised to learn from the Barley Island website that this beer had only 24.5 IBUs; it tasted higher than that. I then wondered how they could measure to a tenth of an IBU. But at 4.3% ABV this would make for an absolutely stunning session beer. I could see stretching this taste out over quite a few hours. Cheese? Yes. Pizza? Oh, yeah. Bacon? I’m in heaven!

Dirty Helen GlassThis is an absolutely wonderful beer. It’s just chock full of taste and the ultimate hop kick to the tonsils is its crowning achievement. Stack this up against Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale and compare the tastes. I’d say this one is a cut above specifically due to the dark, sweet malts used. If you see this beer at the store, snatch it up. Better get two. You’ll want to visit Dirty Helen again because that’s the kind of gal she is.

The SixPackTech ratings for Barley Island’s Dirty Helen Tavern Style Brown Ale are:

Taste: A- > A giant, gift-wrapped present for your tongue.
Smoothness: A- > Like a flapper’s nylon-covered thigh.
Drinkability: A > Like a long run on a game of 8-ball.
Bang for the buck: B+ > Even at 9 Illini-bucks it’s absolutely worth it.
ABV: 4.3%


Dirty Helen

Dirty Helen

Helen Thomas

Helen Thomas



Helen Cromwell
Martini story Comment 2.
Old Fitzgerald, House of Lords
And the image below:

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One Response to Friday Night Blue Collar Brew Review – Dirty Helen Tavern Style Brown Ale

  1. Sue says:

    Just a little obscure note, my grandma and great grandma owned a tavern and during prohibition in Milwaukee and when their stock ran low, if you were friends with Dirty Helen, you could go to her place and purchase stock from her, but she had to like you or you would be competition.  My grandmas were friends with her and she was the one who supplied whiskey for my family’s taverns during prohibition.  They liked her a lot. 
    What a great time to live!  My grandma was an entertainer at a roadhouse as well, can you imagine what it was like to walk thru the doors of a roadhouse that was well known with celebs, politicos and millionaires all mingling in one place taking in something illegal?

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