Style Profile: American Amber Ale

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Illustration by David Witt, DWITT All-Purpose Illustrations

Fall comes quickly in Minnesota. The steamy heat of August yields almost overnight to the relieving snap of September. The days get rapidly shorter. By the end of the month the first blazes of orange and red are appearing in the trees.

September is arguably the best month to be in Minnesota. The air is crisp and dry. The temperature is warm enough to be outside, but just as often cool enough to necessitate a jacket. The lowering angle of the sun creates an appealing, high-contrast light. The color in the trees is stunning.

The in-betweenness of the season calls for beers that are similarly in-between. The time for light, refreshing hefeweizens and witbiers has past. The need for warming barleywines and pitch-black imperial stouts has yet to arrive. Fall wants beers with colors to match the trees—orange, amber, copper, and brown. It’s a time for balanced beers that showcase the soothing toast and caramel taste of malt, but with enough bitterness and hoppy zip to match the crispness of the air.

American amber ale is the perfect beer for autumn in Minnesota. The style is an American original. It was developed on the West Coast during the early days of the microbrewing movement as a maltier companion to American pale ale. Through the 1980s and 1990s it was a brewery standard next to blonde ale, pale ale, and stout. With the growth in popularity of hop-monster IPAs and more adventurous extreme beers, the simple amber ale has fallen a bit out of favor. But this satisfying style deserves a second look.

West Coast examples tend to lean more heavily on hops. Like their paler cousin, they showcase the bright citrus and floral flavors that define the beers of the Pacific Northwest. But malt remains sturdy enough in ambers to differentiate them from pale ales and, as you move toward the Midwest, the balance of hops and malts moves definitively toward malt. Caramel, toast, and biscuit flavors emerge to take center stage. Bitterness and hops are still there, but play a more supporting role. Grassy, herbal, and spicy hop flavors also make more frequent appearances.

The 2008 Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) guidelines describe American amber ale as being like an American pale ale, but with more body and a bigger malt emphasis. It is amber to copper brown in color and usually quite clear. The aroma has a balanced blend of caramel malt and usually citrusy hops, with the malt often taking a slight lead. The flavor follows suit. Rich caramel flavor follows an initial malty sweetness, balanced by supporting bitterness. Hops provide the high notes, usually with a citrusy quality, but other hop flavors from grassy to herbal or spicy may also be found. The finish is medium full with lingering caramel, bitterness, and hop flavor.

Amber ales go great with autumnal foods. The sweet caramel and toast flavors pair well earthy-sweet root vegetables and roasted winter squash. They stand up well to grilled meats for those late-season cookouts. After dinner, try one with a creamy creme brulee.


Vital Statistics

OG: 1.045–1.060
FG: 1.010–1.015
ABV: 4.5–6.2%
IBU: 25–40
SRM: 10–17

Examples

Steel Toe Rainmaker, Rush River The Unforgiven, Surly Furious, Milwaukee Brewing Company Louie’s Demise, Full Sail Amber Ale, North Coast Red Seal Ale, Deschutes Cinder Cone Red, Anderson Valley Boont Amber Ale, Bell’s Amber, Boulevard Amber Ale, Bear Republic Rocket Red, Rogue American Amber Ale

 
Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint About Michael Agnew, A Perfect Pint

Michael has a passion for beer. He is Minnesota's first Certified Cicerone (think sommelier for beer) with the Cicerone Certification Program, and a National Beer Judge with the Beer Judge Certification Program. In addition, Michael is himself an award-winning brewer. He writes a monthly column on beer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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