Style Profile: American Amber Ale

Yakima Craft 1982 American AmberWho remembers American Amber Ales? Not the hopped-up dry Red Ales that have been prevalent the last few years, but the original caramel and malty staple of microbreweries of the ’80s and ’90s? I feel like the Amber Ale is something of an endangered species these days, partially because of the current hops arms race, and partially because I think they are often regarded as boring, amateurish beers that “mature” breweries grow out of. That’s a shame.

I have to confess, the classic version of American Amber—the malty, cakey, caramel flavored, low-hopped version—has always been something of a favorite of mine, since I started drinking craft beer. What’s interesting is how tastes and memories diverge over time. For instance, Full Sail Amber Ale was a benchmark of the style for me, though sometime in the mid-aughts it changed to my perception and became hoppier. (To be fair, I haven’t had this beer for quite awhile, so it’s time to recalibrate and see.)

Perhaps the recipe evolved (there are plenty of examples that have) or perhaps it was my own palate. Regardless, the version of the American Amber that imprinted itself on me is the minimally-hopped, malty, medium-full bodied style; but most commercial versions I try these days are hoppier and drier than I would like. So I thought I’d deep-dive into the style itself and suggest a homebrew recipe to recapture this American classic.

American Amber Ales have been around since the 1980s, and while there’s no definitive answer as to which one came first, one of the earliest attempts at defining the style seems to have come from David Brockington in the December 1995 issue of Brewing Techniques magazine. The magazine itself only lasted a few years in the ’90s, and I haven’t been able to find a version of that article online. However, HomeBrewTalk forum has a good write up of the history and brewing notes for the style, posted in 2008, and it relied heavily on the Brockington article.

Brewers wanted to brew and market beers resembling the English styles Bitter and Pale Ale. Some breweries did just that, bottling ‘Best Bitter’ and ‘ESB’. Others, faced with a dearth of traditional English ingredients, had to use American ingredients.

David Brockington, in the November/December 1995 issue of ‘Brewing Techniques’ magazine, quoted Ed Tringali – former brewer at Berkeley, CA’s Triple Rock and Seattle’s Big Time breweries, as considering the original American Amber Ale (hereafter AAA) a “brewpub beer”. In the beginning of the craft beer revolution, brewpubs wanted a simple lineup of “gold, red and black” beers from their taps. Brewers like Tringali decided that amber to copper-colored beers like English Pale Ales and Special Bitters were the answer to the “red” portion of the color scheme.

At the same time, brewery and brewpub owners were leery of marketing beers with the word “bitter” in the name; justifiably so, in an age with TV commercials deriding ‘bitter beer face’ showing in prime time every evening. Thus, the breweries marketed their red beers as “amber”.

The California brewery most often attributed with typifying AAA is Mendocino Brewing Company, founded in 1983, and their Red Tail Ale – arguably the first commercially successful AAA. The late, great Michael Jackson called Red Tail Ale “an American classic”. Brewer Don Barkley crafted the beer specifically to be a stronger, more flavorful, richly colored, full-bodied amber beer.

Mactarnahan's Amber AleWhile most agree that the Amber Ale derived from an English-influenced brewing tradition, I also suspect there was a measurable degree of influence and inspiration from the malty amber lagers and Altbiers of Germany. For instance, Alaskan Brewing‘s Alaskan Amber is an Alt-styled beer that tastes and fits conceptually into the style. Ale versions of the Oktoberfest/Märzen style are for all intents and purposes Ambers and I would not be surprised if Märzen was a direct influence for a number of brewers in this area.

The earliest style numbers I’ve found are from Al Korzonas. In his book Homebrewing, Vol. 1 (1997) he includes it as a discrete style, citing Brockington’s article. As a subset of the American Pale Ale style, Korzonas gives the following stats:

OG: 1.045-1.063; AA: 69-79%; ABV: 4.4-6.5; IBUs: 20-45; SRM: 7-14.

The style was first included as a separate subcategory in the 1999 revision of the BJCP Style Guidelines, under Category 6, American Pale Ale, which gave the following numbers:

OG: 1.045-1.056
IBUs: 20-40 FG: 1.010-1.015
SRM: 11-18 ABV: 4.5-5.7%

It’s interesting to note how these numbers have evolved with subsequent guidelines over the years:

Korzonas ’97 BJCP ’99 BJCP ’04 BJCP ’08 BJCP ’15 BA ’16
OG 1.045 – 1.063 1.045 – 1.056 1.045 – 1.060 1.045 – 1.060 1.045 – 1.060 1.048 – 1.058
FG n/a 1.010 – 1.015 1.010 – 1.015 1.010 – 1.015 1.010 – 1.015 1.010 – 1.018
IBUs 20 – 45 20 – 40 25 – 40+ 25 – 40 25 – 40 25 – 45
SRM 7 – 14 11 – 18 10 – 17 10 – 17 10 – 17 11 – 18
ABV 4.4 – 6.5 4.5 – 5.7 4.5 – 6 4.5 – 6.2 4.5 – 6.2 4.4 – 6.1

Interestingly, the BJCP 2015 guidelines split out “Red IPA” from “Amber/Red” into its own style, recognizing that those much hoppier Reds should stand alone. For commercial examples of the style, BJCP ’15 lists: Deschutes Cinder Cone Red, Full Sail Amber, Kona Lavaman Red Ale, North Coast Ruedrich’s Red Seal Ale, Rogue American Amber Ale, and Tröegs HopBack Amber Ale.

(Cinder Cone Red has since been discontinued; and I should track as many of these down to see how close they come to what I’m looking for.)

So let’s plug these numbers into brewing a recipe. The first thing to consider is, as an American-derived style, the primary ingredients should be American. Jamil Zainasheff in the November 2007 issue of Brew Your Own has an in-depth profile of the style for brewing, with a good overview of ingredient options to consider:

You have some flexibility in choosing base malt for American amber/red. Domestic 2-row will give the beer a clean, subtle background malt character. North American pale ale malt adds a slightly richer background malt character, somewhat of a light bready note… All-grain brewers can use a single infusion mash and should target a mash that will leave enough long chain sugars to help fill out the body. A temperature around 152–154 °F (67–68 °C) creates wort with a nice balance between fermentable and non-fermentable sugars.

A great deal of an American amber or red’s character comes from specialty malts. Every American amber/red needs a firm caramel note and experimenting with the amounts and colors of crystal malts is a great way to change the character. You can use mid-color crystal (40–60 °L), darker crystal (80–150 °L) or a combination of colors. The mid-color crystal malts add more caramel flavors, while the darker crystal malts add progressively more plum, raisin, and burnt caramel notes as they get darker. Darker crystal malts also tend to be less sweet than the lighter crystal malts… Even though you have a lot of leeway, don’t add a lot of low color crystal malt (< 30 °L) as it adds sweetness without much caramel character. Also watch the quantity. If the crystal malt exceeds 15% of the grist it can result in an overly sweet and heavy beer.

For a clean, gentle pub amber, keep it simple with only the crystal malts. For a bigger, richer beer, this style can support other character grain additions. I can’t get enough bready-toasty-biscuit character so I like to add Munich and Victory malts for about 10% of the grist on a big red ale.

Target a bitterness to starting gravity ratio (IBU divided by OG) of 0.5 to 0.7 for a more balanced amber or 0.7 to 1.0 for a bold red… Hops for American amber/red should be American varieties. Cascade, Centennial, Columbus, Simcoe, and Amarillo are all suitable choices.

Caldera Brewing Ashland AmberSince I’m advocating a richer, maltier experience for my Amber Ales, I would definitely add some Munich and Victory (or biscuit) malts at Zainasheff’s suggested 10%. Of course you need crystal malts, so I’d blend 40°L, 60°L, and 80°L for at least 15% of the grist. I might even go up to 20% on the crystal.

For hops, it’s American hops all the way, and while I’m not a stickler about exactly which varieties to use, make sure you come in towards the lower end of the style for IBUs. I’m targeting the minimum of course, 25 IBUs, so that the hops balance the malt but don’t overwhelm. For finishing I recommend Cascade hops for that classic American flavor.

Recipe: Three Fingered Jack Amber Ale (all-grain)

My targets in developing this recipe were an OG of 1.053, a mash temperature of 154°F to develop the non-fermentable dextrins for mouthfeel and body, and the minimum IBUs of 25.

Ingredients:

  • 7.25 pounds American 2-row malt (74.36%)
  • 0.75 pounds Munich malt (7.69%)
  • 0.25 pounds Victory (Biscuit) malt (2.56%)
  • 0.75 pounds Crystal 40°L malt (7.69%)
  • 0.5 pounds Crystal 60°L malt (5.13%)
  • 0.25 pounds Crystal 80°L malt (2.56%)
  • 0.25 ounces Galena hop pellets (11.4% AA) – 60 minutes – 2.85 AAU
  • 0.15 ounces Calypso hop pellets (15.4% AA) – 30 minutes – 2.31 AAU
  • 0.25 ounce Citra hops (14.4% AA) – 30 minutes – 3.6 AAU
  • 1 ounce Cascade hops – aroma (0 minutes)
  • Wyeast 1056 American Ale or Wyeast 1272 American Ale II

In formulating this recipe, I’m working with the hops that I personally happen to have on hand. Feel free to mix up the hop variety and schedules as you see fit. I’ve included the AAU numbers for them so you can approximate the same targets for similar IBUs. I favor Cascade for the knockout aroma hops to add that classic American hop character without the bitterness.

This will be a single infusion mash at 154° for one hour. After the hour, sparge and draw off five gallons of wort for the boil. This will be a 60 minute boil, though you could go for 90 minutes to develop some kettle caramelization which would be a great addition. Just make sure not to add your bittering hops until 30 minutes in.

Once boil is complete, chill, transfer to your primary fermenter, and aerate thoroughly. Pitch your yeast as close to 68-70° as possible.

Either 1056 or 1272 varieties of Wyeast will work well here. I tend to gravitate to 1272 as I like the results better. If you prefer White Labs, go with WLP001 or WLP051. I have not yet used Imperial Yeast but looking at their strains, I’d suggest A01 House, or even A31 Tartan.

Whether you rack and condition to a secondary is up to you, though you should consider a diacetyl rest regardless. Keg, or bottle with 3/4 cup of corn sugar (or 2/3 cup of cane sugar) for priming.

Recipe: Three Fingered Jack Amber Ale (extract with specialty grains)

For this extract recipe, I would recommend using light (or extra light) malt extract, either liquid or dry form. You can use amber malt extract if you like, though it’s questionable about the malt recipe used to develop the “amber” extract (it could be crystal malts, or darker/roasted malts combined with the base pale malt). Hop schedule and yeast remains the same, and if you can boil all five gallons that is best, though I would avoid boiling longer than 60 minutes to avoid scorching (more of a problem with extract).

Ingredients:

  • 7 pounds light or extra light liquid malt extract (LME)
    • OR 6 pounds light or extra light dried malt extract (DME)
  • 0.75 pounds Crystal 40°L malt
  • 0.5 pounds Crystal 60°L malt
  • 0.25 pounds Crystal 80°L malt
  • 0.25 ounces Galena hop pellets (11.4% AA) – 60 minutes – 2.85 AAU
  • 0.15 ounces Calypso hop pellets (15.4% AA) – 30 minutes – 2.31 AAU
  • 0.25 ounce Citra hops (14.4% AA) – 30 minutes – 3.6 AAU
  • 1 ounce Cascade hops – aroma (0 minutes)
  • Wyeast 1056 American Ale or Wyeast 1272 American Ale II

Add the crystal malts to your water to steep as it heats up. You can use a grain bag which will make things easier, or simply scoop the grains out with a strainer. I always add the grains to the cold water, and then scoop them out (or remove the bag) when the water reaches about 170-180° at the hottest.

Once you’ve removed the grains and the water is hot but not yet boiling, remove your kettle from the heat and add your extract, stirring constantly. This will help prevent scorching as the extract first sinks to the bottle of the kettle before dissolving.

Follow the same steps from boiling as for the all-grain recipe above.

Oh, and for the name of my recipe? Three Fingered Jack is the name of a mountain in the Cascade Range of Central Oregon. Growing up I always assumed it got its name because, from the Bend area, the mountain has three prominent jutting “peaks” that kind of look like a three-fingered hand. It may also have been named for a local outlaw. Either way, I always thought it would make a great name for a beer.