Although IPAs may seem to be the current darlings of the craft beer scene, whether they’re West Coast, East Coast, or Imperial, the American Amber ale (or Red Ale) is still one of the most widely enjoyed styles throughout the United States.
American Amber ales form a key cornerstone of the craft beer revolution and were originally derived from that old favorite beer, the pale ale. Darker in color than their pale ale cousins and more of an amber or red hue (hence the name), most of the larger regional breweries in America have at least one amber ale in their repertoire.
Winter is fast approaching. If you’re not quite ready to make the jump to one of the more traditional darker ales for those darker, colder nights, an amber ale can be a great gateway from the summery pale ales to something a little more full-bodied with a bigger malt character but without wading into the brown ale market.
Although there may not be as many amber ales as IPAs, there are some very good American Amber ales on the market, many of which will be available at your local 7-11. Join me as I review some of the best American Amber Ales, both classics and some more recent reinventions, and exactly what you should expect from an amber ale.
What Makes a Good Amber Ale?
You should expect a delicate hoppiness with a full-bodied sweet maltiness and just a moderate level of bitterness that’s easy to drink from an American Amber Ale. Sitting somewhere between a light ale and a darker brown ale, it should have the crisp, dry finish you would associate with a pale ale and not quite as rich maltiness as you may get from a brown ale or darker beers like porters and stouts.
The BJCP classifies Amber Ale in the category 19A, stating it should be characterized by its use of American hops which are balanced with a hearty, full-bodied, caramel-malty backbone.
An American Amber Ale always reminds me fall is on the way. Not just because many of the brewers release Amber or red beers as a seasonal thing but also because the fuller body of an American Amber is a great bridge from summer pale ales and lagers to the winter stouts and darker beers.
Typically, an American Amber Ale should have a cleaner fermentation character than the British style, as many of the fruity esters come from the British yeasts used on the other side of the pond. Instead, most of the sweetness should be derived from the malts used, with caramel and crystal malts bringing sweetness to the palate and often a slight level of stickiness to the mouthfeel.
This malt backbone of specialty malts will usually be balanced with a moderate level of bitterness from the hops. The hop aroma and flavors can range from moderate to high in an American Amber. Many would argue that the key to a good Amber Ale is not to cross over the boundary into the IPA zone, as the intense bitterness could overpower some of the complexities of the specialty malts and grains used.
Often thought of as an unappreciated style, American Amber Ales seem to have been replaced in most bars with hoppier pale ales and much stronger and more intense IPAs. However, there are still many decent examples of this style out there if you look. Some of them have even reinvented themselves as hybrids with styles like a Red IPA or Imperial Red Beer.
The Best 10 American Amber Ales
Anderson Valley Boont Amber Ale by Anderson Valley Brewing Company
- ABV: 5.8%
- IBU: 16
One of the original amber ales of the 1980s, the perfect balance of this hearty beer makes Boont Amber Ale unique amongst their beers. A deep copper color comes from the rich crystal malts used in the brew that give a hint of caramel sweetness to the finished beer.
Carefully selected whole-cone hops (Columbus, Bravo, Northern Brewer & Mt. Hood) give a herbal, spicy bitterness with a crisp, clean finish. This is all complimented by flavors of toasted grain, toffee, and a bit of fruity esters to balance the mellow hop aroma.
Available all year round, both on draft and in 12-ounce bottles or cans, this classic Amber Ale has won Gold medals at the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Championships.
It is a perfect example of an Amber that finds a way to be crisp yet rich simultaneously.
Bell’s Amber Ale by Bell’s Brewing Company
- ABV: 5.8%
- IBU: 32
First brewed way back in 1985, this classic American Amber is said to be the beer the Michigan Brewery built its reputation with. When it first came out, it was truly revolutionary, being a hoppier, flavor-packed beer with a beautiful amber color that was a little darker than any other ale at the time.
Toasted and sweet caramel notes come from carefully selected malts balanced with the herbal and citrus aromas of the hops. A full-bodied malt sweetness at just 5.8% ABV and a little green apple in the background ensure this Amber ale is both approachable and very refreshing.
A lingering hoppiness ensures you will keep coming back and makes it a great alternative if you simply fancy taking a break from paler larger beers.
Fat Tire Amber Ale by New Belgium Brewing
- ABV: 5.2%
- IBU: 22
Inspired by a bike ride across the Belgian countryside by the New Belgium Breweries founders, this American Amber Ale uses European ingredients to create an Amber Ale representative of the American craft brewing spirit with a twist.
Brewed in Colorado, this Amber ale uses English floral hops but is not too hoppy by today’s standards. A complex yet smooth malt backbone gives depth and complexity to the ale with a biscuity grains taste and a caramel sweetness in the background.
Fruity notes from a Belgian yeast, with an herbal and earthy hop flavor derived from the Williamette, Goldings, and Nugget hops, balance out on the palate for a medium-bodied beer with a clean, dry, and crisp finish.
Red Seal Ale by North Coast Brewing Co.
- ABV: 5.4%
- IBU: 42
Although North Coast Brewing may describe this as a copper-red Pale Ale on their website, it is actually in the style of an American Amber Ale. This popular Amber Ale has been around for over three decades and has won several Gold medals at the World Beer Championships and the Great American Beer Festival.
Red Seal pours into the glass with a rusty amber hue and the slightest of hazes. A classic American hoppy aroma of citrus, resinous and earthy, hits you before you even take your first sip. A rich-bodied ale, it features flavors of candied orange with light caramel balanced with that moderate hoppy bitterness. Those same earthy and citrus hops help give the beer its clean, long, refreshing finish.
An esteemed Cincinnati Enquirer food and drink writer proclaimed, “Red Seal has to be the finest pale ale available nationally.” But, with its beautiful amber color and slight rustiness, I disagree. Red Seal has to be one of the finest “Amber” ales available nationwide.
Hop Head Red by Green Flash Brewing Co.
- ABV: 8.1%
- IBU: 72
With an ABV of over 8% and a challenging level of bitterness at 72 IBU, this Amber Ale is one of the closest you will get to an IPA in the range of amber beers. The label even declares it a Red IPA, but many argue it’s a blissful union of a Double IPA and Red (or Amber) ale.
As you would expect from Green Flash Brewing, especially a beer under the Hop Head label, this Amber ale/IPA hybrid exudes resinous hoppy qualities from the sheer volume of hops used.
The floral aromas and flavors of the hops result from dry hopping with copious amounts of Amarillo, Nugget and Warrior hops. It still has the sweet malt and caramel flavors you expect from an Amber ale, with the use of specialty malts just breaking through the hops for a beer that feels light with an almost watery mouthfeel.
If you love your IPAs hoppy, then this is the must-try American Amber Ale. It’s one for even the most devoted of hop heads!
Troëgs Nugget Nectar by Troëgs Independent Brewing
- ABV: 7.5%
- IBU: 93
Another American Amber for those extreme hop heads, this Imperial Red Ale is only available seasonally from January to March once the newest hop harvest arrives at the brewery.
Using whole flower Nugget, Palisade, and Simcoe hops added directly to the hopback brewing vessel, you get an excessively dry-hopped Amber Ale which is an explosion of pine, resin, citrus, and even mango. At a staggering IBU of 93, it even challenges some of your more experienced IPA fans.
Despite the larger amount of ultra-fresh hops used in the brewing process, some of that subtle malt sweetness manages to squeeze through. The caramel sweetness and malt base tend to turn up halfway through the sip.
Combined with hops and Munich, Pilsner, and Vienna specialty malts, many describe the complex flavors as grapefruit, pine, mango, and creamsicle. Those who have tasted this sexiest style of Amber Ale have always remembered the delectable aftertaste, which keeps them coming back for more.
I must admit, this is one Amber Ale I haven’t personally tried (YET!), but after the recommendations of many of my beer-drinking buddies, I just can’t wait until next January to get my hands on a bottle of this amber nectar!
Evil Dead Red by Alesmith Brewing Company
- ABV: 6.66%
- IBU: 10
Another seasonal Amber available just once a year, this special brew is only released at Halloween. With a name like Evil Dead Red, the deep blood-red cola, and even an ABV of 666 (6.66%), you could be forgiven for thinking this is just a novelty ale. But Evil Dead Red can hold its own with even the most classic styles of Amber Ales. It’s just a well-brewed, hop-centric red ale that goes down like a scream!
The malty backbone with an extremely smooth and drinkable body constantly reminds you it’s a classic Amber-style ale. An intense aroma of pine and citrus from the abundance of American hops is balanced by the sweetness and rich bready flavor of the toasted and caramel malts.
Alesmith describes it as ” a fiendishly smooth brew that will make your taste buds scream with delight!” Halloween puns aside, it is an Amber Ale that would pair perfectly with toffee or caramel apples traditionally served at this time of year.
NOTE: Don’t make my mistake and wear anything too pale or white when drinking this very deep blood-red colored ale; it will stain. Although, having a few blood-like stains on your outfit at Halloween isn’t the worst thing ever!
Prohibition Ale by Speakeasy Ales & Lagers, San Francisco
- ABV: 6.1%
- IBU: 50
Although the name may suggest a much longer heritage, Prohibition Ale was first produced 25 years ago in 1997. It was, in fact, the first beer that the popular new kid on the block brewery created, and it has even won the Gold Medal at the Great Beer Festival of America.
Prohibition pours a ruby color and is generally crystal clear. The uniquely American hoppy flavors of the Big Cs, Chinook, Cascade, Centennial, and CTZ hops shine heavily through a caramel and crystal malt body.
Dark dried fruit, baking spices, and flavors of fresh bread balance with layers of bright and piney hops. Although the beer doesn’t stray so much into the popular style of IPA, it should have enough hops to satisfy most of the hop heads out there.
Available all year round on draft and in 12-ounce bottles or cans, Prohibition Ale is now in a store near you, thanks to one of the most extensive supply networks of a regional brewer of this size.
African Amber by Mac & Jack’s, Redmond, WA
- ABV: 5.8%
- IBU: 30
Despite the name, African Amber is actually a classic American Amber Ale style of beer that has become somewhat of a cult classic in the Northwest, where it is produced.
Mac and Jack started their brewery out of Jack’s garage in 1993 and have been proudly brewing in Redmond, WA, ever since. They even made many of their early deliveries themselves, where they claim they learned the difference between a good beer and a truly compelling beer.
Featuring a striking picture of a lion on the label, African Amber really is a compelling beer, and it’s easy to understand why it’s considered the Northwest’s original unfiltered and dry-hopped amber ale. As soon as you take your first sip, there’s an explosion of hoppy floral flavors, quickly followed up by a well-rounded malty base and finished with an organic hop flavor.
The locally sourced two-row grain and specialty malts give this amber ale a rich taste. Leaving the beer unfiltered seems to add to the flavors while giving it an uncharacteristic cloudy haze for the amber style. Dry hopping with locally grown Yakima hops gives it that big American hop style. But, with an IBU of 30, it’s still pleasantly smooth and easy to drink.
If you live in the Washington State area, you are in luck; it’s available on draft all-year round. But, for the rest of us unfortunate souls, the release in cans is limited, so keep checking at your local beer depot for when this becomes available.
Zoe by Maine Beer Company
- ABV: 7.2%
- IBU: 35
The most contemporary of all the Amber ales we have looked at, Zoe hails from the Maine Beer Company in Fremont on the East Coast. Known for brewing some of the most unique hoppy beers on the craft beer scene, Zoe, named after the owner’s daughter, is a hoppy Amber Ale, nearly on the point of an IPA, which has rich layers of malty flavors through their careful selection of seven different malts.
The robust caramel malt backbone and beautiful amber color put it firmly in the Amber Ale style, but the 7.2% ABV almost pushes it into the IPA category. The piles of Simcoe, Colombus, and Centennial hops give it a piney, resinous, hoppy aroma that will appeal to IPA fans, while the dark fruit, citrus, blackcurrant, cherry, and caramel notes from the complex grain bill win favor with the Amber Ale drinkers.
Unfortunately, although it has been produced since 2009, the Brewery maintains it’s only an occasional brew. It’s far too occasional for my liking, and maybe we should hit the brewery up to at least make it seasonal.