Back in my early days of beer discovery, I sampled a few of the products from the big breweries that were labeled "amber" or "red," often marketed as stepping-stone beers for those looking to graduate from fizzy, yellow lagers to something more flavorful and rich. I pretty much came to the conclusion that these were styles to avoid. Most of these brands — Michelob Amber Bock, Killians Red, Red Wolf — were nothing more than standard macrolagers with a bit of crystal malt added for color and a bit of extra malt body and sweetness.
Then, on a work trip to the Eastern Shore of Maryland in the 1990s, I tried a Wild Goose Amber. An easy-drinking ale, rather than a lager, it featured a toasted, caramel malt flavor and a dry, crisp finish, with none of the sweet dextrin or corn flavors of the mainstream beers. I haven't had the Wild Goose in awhile, and the brewery has been through some ownership changes, so I'm not sure how well the amber holds up today, but at the time it was a refreshing change.
The American amber ale, sometimes called a red ale, is a relatively recent style, popularized on the West Coast to bring a bit more punch to British-style ales and showcase American hop varieties. Building on the Irish red ale, with its mildly sweet, toasted malts, the American red ups the body and malt character as well as the hops. Crystal malts contribute a caramel flavor, while Willamette, Centennial and other American hops are used to introduce a citric bite. Overall, the American red ale seeks to balance malt and hop flavors, keeping drinkability high. Alcohol content can vary widely, with most falling in the 5 percent to 6 percent range. Some brewers have pushed this style into imperial territory, most notably, Terrapin's Big Hoppy Monster, at 8.3 percent ABV.
Some of the best examples of the American amber ale come from California, where it emerged as a definitive style in the 1980s. Red Tail Ale (6 percent), from Mendocino Brewing Company in Ukiah, Calif., was one of the first red ales, created for its original brewpub that opened in 1983 in nearby Hopland. Biscuity, toasted malts and floral, citrusy hops are beautifully balanced in this refreshing ale. A bit of fruity apple tartness comes through midpalate, before the hops reassert themselves for a crisp finish. Perfect for quaffing on an outdoor patio this spring.
Another excellent California offering is the Lagunitas Censored Rich Copper Ale (5.9 percent), originally dubbed "the Kronic." Medium-bodied with a sweet, brown-sugar aroma and an intriguingly earthy hop profile, the Censored is silky smooth and creamy. Although malts dominate, it is by no means heavy or cloying; it represents the next step in the evolution of the red ale.
Back east, two North Carolina craft brewers have weighed in with fine interpretations of the American amber ale. Highland Brewing Company in Asheville makes Gaelic Ale (5.8 percent), a well-balanced beer that pays homage to the Irish red ale, but with the addition of Cascade and Willamette hops it's decidedly American. The bready, caramel malts and the spicy, citric tartness of hops combine for a complex, but easy-drinking ale that would go perfectly with summer meals like hamburger, pizza and sandwiches.
At the other end of the state, the Amber Ale (5.5 percent) from Duck-Rabbit Craft Brewery in Farmville leans more to the malt side of the equation, evincing layers of caramel malt sweetness and cakelike aromas. The modest hop profile has an herbal tealike citric mellowness, and there's a bit of alcohol burn in the nose, putting this beer close to a Scotch ale in character.
You might find a few turkeys when exploring the world of amber and red ales, but there are enough gems out there to make it worth the effort.
Beer Events of Note
5 Seasons in Alpharetta will begin offering beer-and-cheese pairings on the third Wednesday of each month, starting tonight (April 16) at 7 p.m. Five cheeses and five house beers will be paired for $20 per person. Tonight's lineup includes, among others, an Irish red ale paired with farmhouse cheddar, a wit beer paired with a chevre, and the Cloud 9 barleywine paired with Maytag blue cheese. For reservations call 770-521-5551 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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