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Rediscovering Amber

August 31, 2011

Amber ales are one of those categories of beer that exists in a space where other styles converge and contend. They are in the no-man’s-land between dark ales and pale ales, with no real historical precedent to set them apart from the pack (like with IPAs and Imperial Stouts). It’s a grey area, as amber ales are often lumped together with red ales and Oktoberfest-style lagers. Like these other styles, amber ales tend to be centered around their malt profile, so mild caramel malts and a light fruitiness tend to be characteristic. But lack of definition is not a bad thing, because it leaves lots of room to get creative. So I’ve decided to do a roundup of some excellent American amber ales, to hopefully give the style the recognition that it deserves.

A good place to start would be the Anderson Valley Brewing Co.’s Boont Amber Ale, the primary example of an American Amber. It’s very clean tasting at 5.8% abv, with soft caramel malts, a brush of earthy hops, and subtle flavors of apple and honey, with a faint spiciness. Based in Mendocino County, CA, the Anderson Valley Brewing Company has been brewing Boont Amber Ale for over 20 years, and it’s considered a classic in the craft beer world. Setting the precedent for amber ales that would come after it, it pairs exceptionally well with food and is well-balanced enough for any weather or palette.

The Dark Horse Brewing Co., based in Michigan, has an amber ale made especially for Belgian beer aficionados. At 5.5% abv, it’s another light-tasting, mellow brew with a twist of Belgian yeast. Some citrus orange flavor with a hint of cloves and spice give it a taste similar to a Belgian White or a Hefeweizen, but the caramel malts and dark amber color put it squarely in the realm of amber ales. If you’re looking for another excellent example of an innovative amber ale, then Troegs has you covered. Their Hopback Amber is amazing at 6% abv, with toasty, earthy hops and a sweet malty finish. Caramel, toffee, grapefruit, and piney hops all mingle together for a beer that is as flavorful as it is drinkable. The highly sought-after and widely praised Nugget Nectar from Troegs is actually a souped-up, imperial version of their Hopback, so obviously it’s a formula that works.

The last beer in this round-up is the Maine Beer Co.’s Zoe Amber Ale, a very hoppy take on the style at 7.2% abv. I don’t usually play favorites, and it may come off as naive, but I’m gonna say it: this is probably my favorite beer. If I were stuck on a desert island and I could only bring one beer with me, this would be it. It has the mellow background fruitiness of most amber ales, but with a robust, complex hoppiness that is unlike anything else out there. Enticingly bitter, but rounded off with orange, grapefruit and pine notes and a sweet, almost roasty caramel malt backbone. You just can’t nail this one down, and that’s why I love it. Plus, by drinking it, you just might save a whale. I should probably explain that. The Maine Beer Company is a member of “1% for the Planet,” meaning that 1% of all of their sales go towards an environmental non-profit. In this case the non-profit is Allied Whale, an organization that responds to marine mammal strandings along Maine’s coastline, in addition to operating a research station on Mount Desert Rock. A great beer from a great brewery, that just might have taken amber ales to the next level.


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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Andrew Mitchell permalink
    September 1, 2011 9:02 am

    Sounds like this style would work for me. I’ll put these on my short list. Thanks for the low-down.

    • September 3, 2011 8:21 am

      They’re definitely worth checking out. A good way to describe amber ales would be that they’re flavorful without trying too hard, so they’re a good middle of the road style.

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