With spring here and summer looming just around the corner, it’s the perfect time of year for a transitional brew, one that will move us from the robust porters, hearty strong ales and imperial selections enjoyed throughout winter and even the beginning of spring to lighter, crisper quaffs. Not quite ready for wheat beers and Pilsners, amber or red ales are the perfect choice for this time of year.
Honestly, they are also ideal selections for year-round enjoyment, thanks to their typically accessible and easily approachable profiles and smooth, yet not overly dense or rich flavors.
The tricky thing about amber or red ales is that it is a bit of a catch-all category, with examples ranging from light copper to amber to light brown in color. Typically high in maltiness, with low to medium caramel character and a light fruitiness, American examples are also usually characterized by their use of American hop varieties, producing anywhere from soft to well-pronounced hop bitterness, aromas and flavors. Medium in body, with moderate alcohol that usually runs in the 4–7% abv range, these brews are toasty, hearty and flavorful while remaining refreshing and clean.
Amber ales used to be more popular than they are now, and the style has not necessarily been in vogue in recent years. Sure, there are still fantastic examples to be found, as evidenced by the reviews below, but more often than not, they were one of the first flagships from an established brewery (like New Belgium or Bell’s) as opposed to a new recipe or recent release.
But as happens in fashion and music, what’s old will likely soon be new again. Perhaps a resurgence of amber ales is on the horizon, in similar fashion to the recent revival of other clean, classic styles, like lagers, European IPAs or non-imperial stouts.
In the meantime, say hello to spring and ride those amber waves!
Bell’s Amber Ale (American Amber Ale; Bell’s Brewery, MI); $12/12 oz 6 pack, 91 points. A classic, clean and remarkably balanced brew, this showcases superb harmony between the sweet and toasty notes of an amber ale, with just the right amount of bitterness on the finish. The caramel-malt backbone grounds the experience, with supporting notes of citrus rind, toasted brown bread and burnt sugar. The mouthfeel is smooth, yet bold, with ample carbonation to keep the robust flavor profile from feeling too dense or weighty. The alcohol isn’t noticeable at all amid the slightly oversteeped tea-like texture, and a hint of peanut skin lingers on the close. abv: 5.8%
Bear Republic Red Rocket Ale (American Amber Ale; Bear Republic Brewing Co., CA); $7/22 oz, 90 points. What the brewery calls a “bastardized Scottish-style red ale that traces its origins to our homebrew roots,” this is certainly on the bolder and more flavorful side of the amber-ale spectrum. An almost mahogany-brown color in the glass, the nose is loaded with intense, slightly warm sensations of fresh caramel squares, roasted malt, prune, candied orange rind and burnt Demerara sugar. The palate continues in the same bold and intense vein, with a strong caramel core that’s countered by medium carbonation, a needed hop-fueled bitter texture and lingering astringency to pick up the close. abv: 6.8%
Gjulia Ambrata Ovest (Amber ale; Birrificio Gjulia, Italy); $18/750 ml, 90 points. This Fruili-based craft brewery, which farms its own barley and wheat crops, was founded by the Zorzettig brothers, Marco and Massimo, after prior experience in winemaking. A top-fermented red ale, it leads with aromas of lightly toasted malt, molasses bread, brown sugar and light stone fruit, with a slightly herbal edge to it all. The palate is rich and smooth, medium in body and boasting deep flavors of caramelized sugar and candied orange rind. There’s a subtle warmth and peppery kick to the close, which helps to keep the palate refreshed and lifts the mouthfeel’s slightly sweet and full impression. abv: 7%
New Belgium Fat Tire (American Amber Ale; New Belgium Brewing, CO); $12/12 oz 6 pack, 88 points. One of the first beers to achieve a cult-like status in the American craft-beer scene, Fat Tire is a well-made and well-balanced brew, without doubt, offering a rich malt core that’s accented by notes of toasted biscuit, peanut skin and underripe apricot. It’s medium bodied and easygoing in nature, with a subtle hop astringency that lends a light texture to the palate and a kiss of drying bitterness to the otherwise clean close. abv: 5.2%
Santorini Brewing Company Red Donkey (Amber Ale; Santorini Brewing Company, Greece); $NA/330 ml, 88 points. This is a clean and refreshing amber ale, brewed with an international mélange of hops—Aurora and Styrian Golding from Slovenia, Citra from Oregon and Nelson Sauvin from New Zealand—that lends a pleasant bitterness to the otherwise malt-driven profile. The nose offers soft scents of caramel malt, tropical fruit and brown bread, while the palate boasts medium-intense flavors of honeyed orange, citrus zest and brown bread. A tinge of hop astringency unfolds on the clean, dry close. Athenee Importers. abv: 5.5%