While there are classic Old World versions to be found, today Amber Ales are most associated with America and the American craft beer movement. Amber as a style denotes varying amount of caramelized malt (usually crystal malt) used to add sweetness and fruit to a beer (typically though not always an Ale), along with color ranging from pale copper to deep, fiery red. Today we’re going to take a quick look at some of the variations on the Amber/Red Ale theme as well as take a little bit of the air out of the importance of style designations.
For the most part, there isn’t a great deal of difference between what we know today as Pale Ale and Amber Ale. Ambers really took off in the late 1970’s-early 1980’s when young, growing brewpubs and breweries were looking to quite literally offer a full spectrum of beers to an America that didn’t really know much of anything about beer outside of the big brands. Many brewers felt having a Pale, Amber, and Dark beer option was important to give customers more choices, and the extra balance more malts could give to aggressive new American beers was a plus in an era where bitterness in beer was derided (most infamously in a series of commercials that ran in the ‘States for years hawking bland Macro-Lager). In fact, many Amber Ales got their classification in an effort to avoid being labeled as IPAs or strong Pales, lest any potential drinkers be scared off.
It was quickly discovered however just how versatile and varied Amber Ales could be. Their malty sweetness gave greater balance to more intensely hopped beers and played well off of different types of food. An Amber Ale became a staple of almost every revered craft brewery in the U.S., almost a shibboleth acknowledging to beer enthusiasts everywhere that yes, they “got it.” Eventually, adventurous brewers started to push the boundaries of the style, resulting in everything from intensely hoppy Imperial Amber Ales to dark, rich Red Ales. Here are some to look for if you’re new to Amber Ales:
New Belgium Fat Tire: One of the most popular craft beers in the country is this mild, well-balanced Amber Ale from Colorado. Production is high enough that Fat Tire can be found almost everywhere these days, and it’s a great beer to give to folks who don’t think they like craft beer.
Bell’s Amber: The Michigan brewery’s long-time flagship is finesse in a bottle. Fruity yeast, sweet malts and bold hops are perfectly balanced; this beer is a testament to the sheer ability and talent of the folks at Bell’s.
Troeg’s Hopback and Nugget Nectar: Both of these Ambers from Pennsylvania’s Trogner brothers are popular examples of where Amber Ales are today. The Hopback is a year-round Ale with a deeper red hue and firm hoppy bite. Nugget Nectar is released once per year (2012’s should be hitting shelves in late January or early February) and dials the malt down a bit while going through the roof with the hops. A juicy treat, Nugget Nectar never lasts all that long.
Lagunitas Imperial Red: This seasonal offering from Petaluma, California is being re-introduced in early 2012. The Lagunitas has an interesting combination of rich, intense malts and aggressive, earthy hops. The two seem not to balance so much as they agree to disagree, and the result is an Ale that is both sweet and sharp; bitter but oddly approachable. Not to be missed.
Founder’s Red’s Rye IPA: Something a little different for the hopheads. Red’s Rye is an IPA that sees a mix of sweet Belgian caramel malts and rustic, grainy rye with bright Amarillo hops. The hops and the rye work together to temper the sweetness of the caramel malt, creating one of the great and unique year-round American craft beers.
There are many other takes on Amber of course, from Belgian style Ales (Ommegang’s Rare Vos, Victory V-12 or Gouden Carolus Ambrio, for example) to Lagers (rare, but occasionally available) to so-called Copper Ales (Lagunitas’ Censored Ale or Cornerstone Copper Ale from D.C.’s own Chocolate City Brewery). If you’re unsure, simply assume they will have some marked amount of extra sweetness from the malts, and if you can ask your bartender or store assistant if they have any experience with them. I’ve found that Ambers shine with standard American fare: next time you get something off the grill or work up a nice stew or put out snacks for the game, try out one of these or the seemingly endless number of Amber Ales out there.
Nick Anderson keeps a blog at www.beermonger.net, and can be found on Twitter at @The_Beermonger. Sign up for Arrowine’s money saving email offers and free wine and beer tastings at www.arrowine.com/mailing-list-signup.aspx.