10B – American Amber Ale

Red Tail Ale

American Amber Ale, sometimes called American “Red” Ale, was made popular on the West Coast of the U.S. by Mendocino Brewing Company with their Red Tail Ale. Early on in the American Craft Beer movement, brewpubs wanted representatives from the “gold, red and black” beer colors on tap. This would basically cover the entire range of beers from light golden lagers and ales to the darkest of beers such as stouts and porters. The American Amber Ale style fell into the “red” range and was brewed to fill this need. The name “amber” was adapted as a marketing ploy to avoid problems with other names which American customers would either avoid or be confused by. For example, the term “bitter’ was avoided due to advertising at the time for beers such as Keystone Light, showing beer drinkers with a “bitter beer face.” Another confusing term had to do with the term “Pale Ale” which most Americans still view as any beer which is straw in color, not amber.

As American brewers began shifting to cheaper American ingredients, there was a need to find an appropriate name for the style. Best Bitter and ESB no longer worked when using American ingredients. Soon, the American Amber Ale style began to be recognized as separate from the English Pale Ales, and even the American Pale Ales. The use of crystal malts to give the beer it’s red or amber color also gave the beer a noticeable crystal-malt body, flavor (primarily a residual caramel malt sweetness) and aroma. This is the primary factor which differentiates the American Amber Style from darker versions of an American Pale Ale.

The American Amber Ale style is fairly broad in its interpretation. It can be hoppy and big on the West Coast, and subtle or restrained elsewhere. Some versions can be malty with a toasty note while others will have a slight roasty character. Some important factors to consider when brewing one is the amount and type of caramel malts you use in your recipe. Becoming familiar with the contributions of the various crystal malts will aid you in your recipe formulation. These beers are sometimes hoppy but not really too bitter. Keep your hop additions in the flavor and aroma range to minimize the bittering effects, and use American hops for the authentic “American Brewpub” flavor.”

  • Aroma: Dry hopping is often used in American Amber Ales to give a low to medium hop aroma. For some, late kettle additions of American hop varieties give better results. A citrusy hop character from use of American hops is common, but not required. Moderately low to moderately high maltiness balances and sometimes masks the hop presentation, especially outside of the West Coast. These beers will usually exhibit a moderate caramel character. Esters vary from moderate to none. No diacetyl should be present.
  • Appearance: An amber to coppery brown color (often described as “red”) is appropriate for this style. Moderately large off-white head with good retention is typical. Generally quite clear, although dry-hopped versions may be slightly hazy.
  • Flavor: These beers may have a moderate to high hop flavor from American hop varieties (the 4-C’s), which often but not always has a citrusy quality. Malt flavors are moderate to strong, and usually show an initial malty sweetness followed by a moderate caramel flavor (and sometimes other character malts in lesser amounts such as toasty, bready or roasty notes). American Amber Ales should be a balanced beer with hop flavors and bitterness balancing the big malt and caramel profile. Fruity esters can be moderate to none depending on yeast and fermentation profile of the brewer. Caramel sweetness and hop flavor/bitterness can linger somewhat into the medium to full finish. No diacetyl should be present.
  • Mouthfeel: Medium to medium-full body from use of caramel and other specialty malts. Carbonation is moderate to high in most examples. Overall the finish should be smooth without the astringency often associated with high hopping rates (this is where keeping hop additions late in the boil will help). Stronger versions may have a slight alcohol warmth.
  • Overall Impression: American Amber Ales are much like an American pale ale, but with more body, more caramel richness, and a balance more towards malt than hops (although hop rates can be significant).
  • Comments: This style can overlap in color with American pale ales. Should not have a strong chocolate or roast character that might suggest an American brown ale (although small amounts are OK).
  • Ingredients: Pale ale malt, typically American two-row. Medium to dark crystal malts. May also contain specialty grains which add additional character and uniqueness. American hops, often with citrusy flavors, are common but others may also be used.
  • Vital Statistics: OG: 1.045 – 1.060 FG: 1.010 – 1.015 IBUs: 25 – 40 SRM: 10 – 17 ABV: 4.5 – 6.2%.
  • Commercial Examples: North Coast Red Seal Ale, Tröegs HopBack Amber Ale, Deschutes Cinder Cone Red, Pyramid Broken Rake, St. Rogue Red Ale, Anderson Valley Boont Amber Ale, Lagunitas Censored Ale, Avery Redpoint Ale, McNeill’s Firehouse Amber Ale, Mendocino Red Tail Ale, Bell’s Amber

References: Information for this page was adapted from the 2008 BJCP Style Guidelines, Brewing Classic Styles, 80 Winning Recipes Anyone Can Brew, by Jamil Zainasheff and John J. Palmer, and the article entitled American Red Ale online at Home Brewing Wiki.

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