American Amber Ale

Rediscovering the joy of crystal malt and American hops

Crystal malt gets a bad rap sometimes. When American IPAs and double IPAs became popular, brewing advice included admonitions to avoid the use of crystal malts with these very hoppy beers. Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing Co. based out of Santa Rosa, California, for instance, is quoted as saying, “Don’t go crystal crazy. Keep crystal malts to a very low percentage of your total grist bill. Too much crystal malt can hide some of the really nice aromas and flavors contributed by the hops.” I myself have said, “Munich is the new crystal,” while explaining how malty and sweet are related flavors but different, and that a supportive maltiness works better in many hoppy beers.

All of this is true, but sometimes people misinterpret advice like this as saying that crystal malt is inherently a bad or tainted product . . . or that it should never be used in any hoppy beer. That’s a bit too extreme an interpretation, but using crystal malts does require a little more care in pairing the malt flavors and hop flavors so they don’t clash — just as with some yeast strains. American amber ale is one style that uses crystal malt and hops and shows that they can work together well when the right approach is used.

The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) groups American amber ale in Category 19, Amber and Brown American Beer, along with California common and American brown ale. Some people are confused that ales and lagers are mixed in the same category, but California common is a warm-fermented lager and it actually has a similar flavor profile to American amber ale. These beers do judge well against each other in a competition flight. American amber ale is Style 19A in the style guidelines.

American Amber Ale History

This style is relatively easy to trace since it developed in the early days of the craft beer movement in the United States. As brewpubs and microbreweries started up, many offered lineups with a gold (or pale), an amber (or red), and a dark (or black) beer. Simplistic, but beer enthusiasts weren’t given much credit then. In 1997, Michael Jackson wrote, “the term ‘amber’ has in recent years come to be used very widely in the U.S., but it has no agreed meaning.” Not surprising. If you offer beer by color, consumers in those days could receive just about anything — ESB, Irish red, something Scottish perhaps . . . or a darker pale ale (English or American). I think the point then was that amber is a color, not a style.

Some early craft breweries had amber ales as their flagship brews. Bell’s Amber from Michigan was first made in 1985 and is still made today. Catamount Amber was made in 1987 in Vermont and was derived from English pale ales. Dock Street in Pennsylvania had a good amber beer. But I really think of Mendocino Brewing Co.’s Red Tail Ale as the prototype of the style; it was first made in 1983 in northern California, and inspired many others. While Mendocino was thought of as a successor to America’s first modern microbrewery, New Albion Brewing Co., Red Tail Ale was a new recipe developed at the brewery.

American amber ale is one style that uses crystal malt and hops and shows that they can work together well when the right approach is used.

Looking at older versions of the BJCP style guidelines, American amber ale was not recognized as a distinct style in either 1997 or 1998. It could fit under American pale ale, as described then. In the 1999 edition, it was spun off from American pale ale, due largely to an article by David Brockington in Brewing Techniques who made a very persuasive case (although somewhat limited to his U.S. Pacific Northwest viewpoint). He described a “West Coast Amber Ale” as different from pale ales (both English and American), and also made some astute observations about American IPA being a different breed (there was just one IPA style then, believe it or not), American blonde being different than pale ale, and generally setting up the idea that maltiness and hoppiness should be considered along with color in categorizing beer styles. Beer styles were growing up.

I took a trip to the Bay Area of California in 1996 on a job-hunting trip that didn’t pan out. But I do have vivid memories of visiting a taproom in Pleasanton next door to HopTech, a homebrewing supplier where I met Mark Garetz, an early author and promoter of hops. I remember virtually all the taps at the bar (over 20) were called red ales. Everyone was drinking them, and they were hoppy, fresh, and had some variety. When I later read Brockington’s article, I knew exactly what he was talking about.

In the article, John Maier of Rogue Ales was quoted as saying that there were really two subtypes of the style, with maltier, more balanced versions being called ambers and hoppier, more aggressive types known as red. I think this is more of a regional argument, but I do agree with the characterization of differences at the time. The more balanced ambers remained the American amber ales we know today, while the red versions continued to evolve and mutate. They grew stronger and hoppier, and split further into styles that are still around now. Ones with a drier finish became red IPAs and those that had more of a residual sweetness morphed into double red ales. It’s hard to find many examples today of the West Coast red that Brockington first characterized.

The Mendocino brewery closed, Rogue no longer makes their red, Pete’s Wicked and their Red are long gone, and Pyramid no longer makes an amber. Anderson Valley still makes Boont Amber Ale, but it is on the low side in IBUs. Big Time in Seattle, Washington still makes their amber, but they are a brewpub. North Coast Red Seal Ale is kind of pale ale-like. I enjoyed Kona Lavaman Red on a trip to Hawaii in 2013 but it is not easy to find. Tröegs Hopback Amber is really good, but pushes the style on the high side. Full Sail Amber from Oregon, made since 1989, is still a flagship brew, and probably fits the style best.

Sensory Profile

The original concept of the style was an American pale ale with a moderate amount of mid-range caramelly crystal malt. From a sensory profile, this isn’t a bad place to start, since the beer has many of the same attributes as a classic American pale ale, with the noticeable effects that crystal malt would add.

The amber color is the first and most obvious characteristic of the style, but since the style fits between American pale ale and American brown ale, think of a color in between those styles. Something darker than gold, but paler than brown. Most are amber to copper in color, and some might have a reddish hue. Clarity and head are generally good, but not particularly remarkable.

The beer is often a bit stronger than a standard pale ale, in the 5.5–6% ABV range, although the style is a bit broader. Too strong, and it will seem like an IPA. Too weak, and it may get lost. IBUs can vary widely, often around 30, but 25–40 is the actual range. The best examples typically have a good balance between malt and hops. If it’s too malty, it may seem like an Irish or Scottish beer and if it’s too hoppy, it may seem IPA-like.

Body can be a bit bigger than a pale ale, in the medium to medium-full range. Stronger versions may have a bit of alcohol warmth to them. The beers are generally dry, although lower IBU versions will have a maltiness that often suggests sweetness (particularly combined with the caramel flavors).

The malt character is clean, but caramelly and malty. Some versions can have a bit of toastiness, but this character is typically restrained. Too many bready and toasty flavors will make the beer seem a bit too English. The yeast character should be neutral and clean, possibly with light esters, and the base malt should likewise be neutral. The malt should be caramelly and toffee-like, not overly like burnt sugar, and blend well with the hops. Clashing flavors are not a good pairing.

The hop profile is noticeable but generally balanced in intensity with the malt. Citrusy, floral, and fruity characteristics are often present; those that are too piney, resiny, dank, or earthy are less likely to blend well with the caramel flavors. The aroma and flavor profile should be similar, and the aroma should give a good clue as to the flavors about to be tasted.

The beer does not typically have a roasted or dark malt character, as the flavors and colors from these malts tend to push the beer into the brown ale territory. Many amber lagers have a wider range of malt flavors than are present in this style, but the malt, hops, bitterness, and alcohol strength are typically all slightly above average, and well balanced. If you can imagine a Fuller’s ESB made with more American-specific ingredients, you’re actually in the right ballpark.

Brewing Ingredients and Methods

The grist and mash are fairly simple. A single infusion mash is most traditional, although brewers have successfully used a wide range of conversion temperatures (150–158 °F, 65–70 °C). The base is American 2-row or pale ale malt, mostly. Around 10% or more of a mid-range crystal malt (40–80 °Lovibond) gives it most of its color and flavor — think caramel and toffee more than burnt sugar and dried fruit. Some brewers add some form of Munich malt for added maltiness, and many will use a mix of crystal-type malts. Some will use a smaller percentage of darker crystal malts for a deeper color and flavor.

If you can imagine a Fuller’s ESB made with more American-specific ingredients, you’re actually in the right ballpark.

Dark malts are used sparingly and for color only. Some versions will also add a touch of character malt, such as Victory®, to give a slightly toasted, drying English flavor. Interesting side story, did you know Victory® malt (a Briess product) was created because a brewer, Victor Ecimovich then at Goose Island in Chicago, requested a biscuit-type malt that would yield an English flavor in American beers? The malt is actually named after him.
Various grists can be used, but the constants seem to be neutral base malt and some type of crystal malt. The rest is a variation left up to the brewer. My good friend and two-time Ninkasi Award winner Joe Formanek had good success with an American amber that used a complex grist and used Belgian and English malts — I’m a fan of these crystal-type malts as well. The beer is all-malt, a departure from many English ales, so caramel flavors are coming from malt not sugars.

Hops should be noticeable in the bitterness, flavor, and aroma of this beer, so plan on additions for these purposes. As an old-school U.S. craft beer, Cascade hops are traditional and work well in this style. Many brewers combine German noble hops (or U.S. versions) to add floral notes to the grapefruity Cascade. More modern examples can bring in other hops; Tröegs is known for using Nugget, for instance. Any of the early craft “Four C” hops (Cascade, Columbus, Centennial, or Chinook) could be used in traditional versions.

Obviously, feel free to experiment with hop choices, but remember that some combinations are known to work well for a reason. Pairing hops with crystal malt can be a bit tricky, but I don’t want to scare you away from trying. Just keep in mind that some flavors will clash, so be prepared to admit that some experiments will fail. But new hop varieties are being released all the time, and it’s fun to give older recipes an update with more modern ingredients.

A clean, neutral American ale yeast strain will be perfect here, fermented at normal temperatures. Nothing extreme is in order. A light fruitiness is acceptable, so sometimes a lightly fruity English strain could be snuck in, but most brewers will be using standard American ale yeast. Same with the water profile; something neutral, or at least without much sulfur, would pair best with the malt and hops.

Homebrew Example

This one is pretty easy, as my recipes go, but you do have some choices here that can personalize the recipe for your own tastes. I’ve slightly modernized this from a 1990s version, but you can make one of the original ones too.
A relatively neutral base malt should be most of the grist, so I’ll pick a North American pale ale malt. Using 2-row pale malt or Pilsner malt will also give good results, but I would steer clear of the U.K. base malts that will be too bready and biscuity. A clean malt base will make the specialty grains and hops easier to harmonize.

Adding flavor and body comes from crystal malt and Munich malt, in this case a mid-range crystal 60 °L and dark Munich malts. I use a touch under 10% of each. The final malt is a little bit of chocolate malt that is steeped just until a reddish color emerges, then removed. Since the crystal and Munich will both add body, I don’t feel the need to mash at higher temperatures. I typically use a British medium crystal, like Crisp makes (about 65 °Lovibond). Dark Munich malts come in several versions, but my preference is the Weyermann Munich II; I want a deep maltiness, not a heavy toastiness. Most commercial examples will use a light Munich malt, if at all.

I like to have some Cascade hops in this beer since that is what many of the earliest examples used. I also see that many commercial examples combine a German noble hop (or equivalent U.S. hop) in the mix, so I’ll add some Hallertauer to the aroma addition. Finally, in a more modern twist, I’ll bring in a little Mandarina Bavaria to add an interesting orange flavor (you can use more Cascade if you want to stay classic). I’ll use first wort hopping and whirlpool hopping to increase the aroma and flavor and to make the bitterness smoother. I don’t typically dry hop this beer, but if you prefer an increased grassy hop aroma, go ahead and use an ounce of Cascade for three days of dry hopping.

A relatively neutral American yeast strain like Wyeast 1272 (American Ale II) fermented at 68 °F (20 °C) gives a clean, well-attenuated character. A hint of fermentation esters is acceptable, but shouldn’t be a goal of the fermentation. The style doesn’t really have a water-driven profile, so I use my typical RO water and calcium chloride addition that favors malty styles and gives a rounded finish.

I’m aiming for a balanced, drinkable, middle-of-the-road interpretation of the style, so I’m not letting the gravity, alcohol, or bitterness get too high. I’m remembering the beer I first discovered in the mid-1990s, one you could enjoy several pints of at a time. The challenge in this style to me is restraint, and keeping the flavors in balance. If you do that, this could be a choice as one of your regular house beers.

American Amber Ale by the numbers:
OG: 1.045–1.060
FG: 1.010–1.015
SRM: 10–17
IBU: 25–40
ABV: 4.5–6.2%

American Amber Ale

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.054 FG = 1.012
IBU = 30 SRM = 15 ABV = 5.5%

9 lbs. (4.1 kg) pale ale malt
1 lb. (454 g) dark Munich malt (9 °L)
1 lb. (454 g) crystal malt (60 °L)
2 oz. (57 g) chocolate malt
5.5 AAU Cascade hops (first wort hop) (1 oz./28 g at 5.5% alpha acids)
4.5 AAU Mandarina Bavaria hops (10 min.) (0.5 oz./14 g at 9% alpha acids)
1 oz. (28 g) Hallertauer hops (5 min.)
1 oz. (28 g) Cascade hops (hopstand)
Wyeast 1272 (American Ale II), White Labs WLP051 (California V Ale),
or Mangrove Jack’s M36 (Liberty Bell Ale) yeast
3⁄4 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
This recipe uses reverse osmosis (RO) water. Adjust all brewing water to a pH of 5.5 using phosphoric acid. Add 1 tsp. of CaCl2 to the mash.

Put the chocolate malt in a mesh bag and steep briefly in the full volume of the hot strike water before the mash begins. Steep just long enough so that a deep reddish color appears. This should only take a few seconds, but you may have to stir the water to judge the color effect. Remove the bag when a reddish color is noticed.

Mash in pale ale and Munich malts at 151 °F (66 °C) using a 1.5 qts./lb. (3.1 L/kg) water-to-grist ratio. Rest for 60 minutes. Add the crystal malt, begin recirculating, and raise the temperature to 168 °F (76 °C) for mash out. Recirculate slowly for at least 15 minutes. Add the first wort hops to the kettle before beginning runoff.

Sparge slowly and collect 6.5 gallons (24.5 L) of wort in your kettle. Boil the wort for 90 minutes, adding remaining hops at the times indicated in the recipe. Add the last Cascade hops after heat has been turned off and the wort has cooled for 10 minutes. Give a long stir to create a whirlpool then let settle for 10 minutes.

Chill the wort to 68 °F (20 °C), pitch the yeast, and ferment until complete. After conditioning, rack the beer, prime and bottle condition, or keg and force carbonate.

American Amber Ale

(5 gallons/19 L, extract with grains)
OG = 1.053 FG = 1.012
IBU = 30 SRM = 15 ABV = 5.4%

5.9 lbs. (2.7 kg) pale liquid malt extract
0.7 lb. (318 g) Munich liquid malt extract
1 lb. (454 g) crystal malt (60 °L)
2 oz. (57 g) chocolate malt
5.5 AAU Cascade hops
(first wort hop) (1 oz./28 g at 5.5% alpha acids)
4.5 AAU Mandarina Bavaria hops
(10 min.) (0.5 oz./14 g at 9% alpha acids)
1 oz. (28 g) Hallertauer hops (5 min.)
1 oz. (28 g) Cascade hops (hopstand)
Wyeast 1272 (American Ale II), White Labs WLP051 (California V Ale),
or Mangrove Jack’s M36 (Liberty Bell Ale) yeast
3⁄4 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
Use 6.5 gallons (24.5 L) of water in the brew kettle; heat to 158 °F (70 °C).
Steep the grains for 30 minutes in a mesh bag. Remove and rinse. Turn off the heat. Add the malt extract and stir thoroughly to dissolve completely. You do not want to feel liquid extract at the bottom of the kettle when stirring with your spoon. Turn the heat back on, stir in the first wort hops and bring to a boil.

Boil the wort for 60 minutes, adding hops at the times indicated. Follow the all-grain recipe for the post-boil, fermentation, and packaging instructions.

Issue: May-June 2021