This month’s column is going to cover Amber Ales, which are also includes the sub-category Red Ales. These very drinkable beers are a modern, non-traditional style that morphed from the classical Pale Ales of England. American brewers tend to do things in a bigger way so American Pale Ales tend to be a bit more malted (read sweeter) and contain more hops (read more bitter) than their British counterparts. The amber style is darker in color, has more caramel flavor and is more evenly balanced between malt and bitterness than pale ales.

These characteristics make this style more approachable to the novice craft beer drinker. Amber ales are a great entry point for those that find “Microbrew” to bitter or strong. The bitterness in beer comes from hops, which balance out the sugar from the malt. Hops are very similar to capsicum in chili peppers in that the taste buds build up a tolerance to them over time. Experienced beer drinkers tend to like hoppier beers for the most part. Amber ales also tend to be lower in alcohol then most craft beers, which coupled with the caramelized malt flavors, make them go down with almost no effort at all.

Ambers can be also be recognized easily because they almost always contain the word amber or red in their names. The fact that many great examples are produced in California as well as Oregon, Washington and Alaska comes as no surprise since this style originated in this area. Anderson Valley in Boonville, Ca. produces one of the benchmarks Boont Amber, a well-balanced ale with just a hint of apples initially and finished with a light hop bitter nuance. Another of the “local” benchmarks is Red Seal Ale from North Coast in Ft. Bragg, Ca. a very toasty ale packed with flavor and oh so easy to drink. On a side note both of these breweries are located in beautiful out of the way spots that are excellent and affordable places to get away from the hustle and bustle, with a pleasant scenic two and a half hour drive, while exploring the world of craft beer.

To the south in Morgan Hill, Ca. El Toro Brewing makes Poppy Jasper an easy drinking Caramel flavored amber, while in the far northern reaches of the Golden State Mad River brews Jamaica Red a full flavored beer with a chewy character and hoppy finish. This beer is probably not for someone who is graduating from the American Lager style, but it is a wonderful exciting experience.

How about right here in town? Our own 21st Amendment’s Northstar Red, a very drinkable toasted malt beverage with a subtle hop finish just two blocks from Pac Bell Park. Down at the Beach Chalet they feature Riptide Red another good example of a malty beverage with just a hint of hops.

Our northerly neighbors in Oregon have established themselves as one of the beer capitals of the world and they have an impressive showing in the Amber Ale category as well. Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon has recently come out with Cinder Cone Red, a combination of toasted malt flavors that balance out the rather hopped finish. Full Sail in beautiful Hood River, Oregon brews Full Sail Amber, a medium bodied, well-balanced ale with a nice long finish. All of the beers mentioned in this article are available in bottles and can be found on draft at the better pubs and multi-tap establishments in the Bay Area. I have only mentioned a small fraction of the fine examples of this American Ale only because of lack of space.

What to eat with amber or red ales? The malty character complements spicy foods and the flavors of crab, shrimp and lobster are brought out a little.  Gumbo always comes to mind with a complex red ale. Fruit desserts featuring caramel sauce as long as they are not overly sweet go well with lighter less hoppy ambers.
Finally, do yourself a favor, get out there and try some new beers. You might just find a new favorite and a six-pack costs less than a decent bottle of wine.


Chef Bruce