The eighth in our series of “Source of Styles” – as decided by our Patreon supporters – looks at amber ales – an unusual style of beer in that there is no prescribed description of what an amber ale should be. It is a modern American craft beer style developed as a variation from American Pale Ales. With a name like amber, which directly relates to the colour, that ranges from amber and copper to deep red hues, the style soon gained popularity and spread like wildfire across North America.
The style of amber ale was originally developed on the West Coast of the USA, along Northern California and the Pacific Northwest, while its history can be traced to Irish Red ales, and even German Alts. With large Irish and German population in the USA, which stemmed from the mass immigration movement, it is surprising that the amber ale style developed on the west coast, instead of the east.
American Amber Ale was a first used by startup American microbrewers in the 1980s as a simple beer description for consumers to describe the colour and hop influence, but it soon found acceptance as a formal style name. These beers claim a middle ground between American Pale Ale and American Brown Ale, but often overlap the adjacent categories in significant ways.
In the early days of amber ales, it was used as a catch-all for many different kinds of beers which were in the pale ale style, but the notation covered other styles with varying characteristics from styles such as Scottish ales, Irish Red ales, extra special bitters (ESBs), and German alts. Since becoming a popular term, homebrewers and brewers alike came to an agreement that recognized it as an American style, separate from the other styles of beer that influenced it.
Since coming to popularity, amber ales have been split into two groups, with the word “American” proving to be the differentiation point. Those that are deemed to be American use American hops, which tend to produce piney or citrus notes, while those that do not have “American” in the style tend to use hops from Europe, which often have a more earthy and noble like aroma.
When trying an American amber ale, the following characteristics will help you identify between a good and a great one:
- Appearance – Amber to coppery-brown in color. Moderately large off-white head (slight coppery fleks or a tinge of amberness) with good retention.
- Aroma – American Ambers have an American hop focus with notes of citrus, floral, pine, resinous, spicy, tropical fruit, stone fruit, berry, or melon. A citrusy hop character is common, but not essential. Non-American Ambers will have a more earthy and noble hop focus. Malts should be a notable caramel to toffee character.
- Flavour – Malt and hop bitterness are usually balanced and mutually supportive. The bitterness can range from IBU 20 – 50. Hops tend to be similar to the aroma with citrus, floral, pine, resinous, spicy, tropical fruit, stone fruit, berry, or melon. The malts should bring a caramel sweetness while the hop flavor/bitterness can linger.
- ABV – Amber beers tend to range from 4.5% to 6.5%, which are stronger than your pale ale, but on the weaker side for an IPA.
While most styles from the USA eventually come to Japan and see a sudden explosion in popularity, the uptake with American Ambers has been quite slow, compared with American Pale Ales and American IPAs. Here are some of the best that Japan has to offer up, so try and pick some up and let us know what you think.
1) Baird Beer Red Rose Amber Ale
- The Bottom Line: Baird Red Rose Amber Ale is very much a drinkable beer and something I will try again
- The Full Review: Baird Red Rose Amber Ale by Baird Beer
2) Swan Lake Amber Ale
- The Bottom Line: Swan Lake Amber Swan Ale is an extremely nice amber ale that I highly recommend.
- The Full Review: Swan Lake Amber Swan Ale by Hyouko Yashiki No Mori Brewery
3) Oh! La! Ho Amber
- The Bottom Line: Oh! La! Ho Amber Ale is a very good amber ale and well worth sourcing out.
- The Full Review: Oh! La! Ho Amber Ale by Oh! La! Ho Beer
4) Minamishinshu Amber Ale
- The Bottom Line: f you like amber ales, then you’ll like this though if you’ve never had one before, it might put you off.
- The Full Review: Minamishinshu Amber Ale by Minamishinshu Beer Company
Let’s be honest – if you’re going to try a style of beer, then it’s also worth trying out some of the overseas beers. Here’s some foreign American Ambers we also recommend. Check out the label on the bottle to see when the beer was bottled, and also ask how the beer was imported. Was it in a cold chain from start to finish? Was the beer stored in a chilled environment in store? If the shop assistant can’t, or doesn’t know the answer, then give it a miss.
- Modern Times Blazing World (USA)
- Fat Tire Belgian Style Ale (USA)
- Bear Republic Red Rocket (USA)
- Brewdog 5AM Saint (UK)