American Amber: Tips from the Pros

The Beer Judge Certification Program style guidelines say it’s, “like an American pale ale with more body, more caramel richness, and a balance more towards malt than hops.” We say it’s a refreshing and delicious beverage. Three U.S. brewers have some insight to share this issue about this all-American ale — whether you call it amber (as in waves of grain) or red (with no white and blue).

Brewer: John Harris, Full Sail Brewing in Hood River, OR

The amber category is one of the most diversely interpreted styles. It sets itself apart from an American pale ale with a red-orange color, good caramel malt character with a touch of nuttiness and a floral hop character.

Use a good caramel malt made from 2-row barley at around 60 to 80 °L. A little dark roasted barley will help turn the color towards red. It will also lend a greater malt character and a slight nuttiness.

American aroma hop varieties are best, especially those with a more pronounced American character with a fruity and lightly citrus quality like Cascade, Mt. Hood and Crystal. Hops like Willamette and Mt. Rainier will lend a more earthy character and should be avoided. Super citrus hops like Columbus and Simcoe will  also overwhelm the malt character.

I recommend using a good yeast culture with a healthy count. Yeast should interplay with the caramel malts and hops to lend fruitiness to the beer. Try Wyeast 1056 (American Ale), 1272 (American Ale II) and 1332 (Northwest Ale).

Ambers should have some residual sweetness but leave the palate with a fruity crispness. A mash in the 152 °F (67 °C) range will allow good fermentability yet will leave the beer a bit drier than a higher mash conversion temperature.

The beauty of this style is that it is open to individual interpretation. Try caramel malts of various colors. Blending lighter and darker versions will lend more complexity to your beer. Lighter dry hopping will add to the fruitiness. The key to this style is to make it more than an under-hopped pale ale. It should stand alone.

Brewer: John Trogner, Tröegs in Harrisburg, PA

An American amber is an interesting balance between hops and malt. It should be brewed so that you can taste both flavors individually. This style is definitely the one I would choose if I were stranded on a desert island.

When we make our HopBack Amber, what we shoot for is a really clean, malty character, which we achieve with American Pilsner base malts and German Munich malts for the nutty characters. Once we have the profile we want, we crisp it up with roasted barley and dark crystal malts.

For hops, we always shoot for spicy, American, high alpha hops. There are definitely lots and lots of Nugget hops in HopBack Amber.

For yeast, we always use clean American yeast strains. I would say that yeast isn’t necessarily the star of an American amber. It should lend a more neutral character. The catch, however, is that the yeast needs to be very healthy. You can’t just smack the pack and throw it in. I would recommend letting the yeast grow up a few times to make it stong and healthy before using it in your amber. This style also needs lots of aeration and cooler fermentation temperatures than some other styles. I like to shoot for 62–65 °F (17–18 °C).

One of the biggest differences in making our amber is that we use a hopback after the boil (but while the wort is still hot) with whole flower hops. This is really the key to this beer (hence the name HopBack Amber). I feel that it really develops the aroma and essence of the hops without imparting the bitterness like dry hopping does.

Also, at Tröegs the water is quite soft so before we brew our amber we harden the water quite a bit to get 150 ppm of calcium and 80–100 ppm of chloride.

My advice to homebrewers who want to make a great American amber is to always make sure your yeast is really healthy, which is actually true for all styles. You can make many great beers with strong yeast — it’s one of the biggest factors we concentrate on here.

Brewer: John Hiiva, Steamworks Brewing Company in Durango, CO

In my opinion, a great American-style red (or amber) ale is all about balance and  drinkability.  The characteristics of this beer should always leave the drinker wanting more. With our Lizard Head Red, we stress a darker  caramel malt presence balanced with prominent hop flavor and aroma.

For malts, we use American-grown, 2-row malt for the base and specialties. The  brewer can use any number of malts to achieve a desired flavor, but what is  most important is the color. The use of a small amount of darker caramel malts will give the final beer its characteristic red color.

We tend to lean towards the American varieties of hops for our beer,  for example, Nugget, Cascade, and Mt. Hood. But this is, of course, all a matter of a brewer’s interpretation and personal preference.

Do take notice, however, of the fact that the malts used for the color of the beer are strong and one should balance this with stronger hop character (with both bitterness and  aroma).

To ferment Lizard Head Red, our house ale yeast is used at average ale fermentation temperatures. Slightly higher temperatures can be used to impart desirable esters in  the finished beer as well.

My advice for brewing this style is to make sure you achieve the correct mash temperature for proper starch breakdown. We tend to stop runnings at about 5–6 °P (1.020–1.024 SG) to ensure proper pH because we have found that it has a positive impact on drinkabilty and balance.

I feel that the biggest challenge with an American red or amber ale is achieving the right color without going too far and overpowering the final result with the darker malt character.

Also, making sure that proper fermentation and conditioning temperatures are achieved is vital in the success of making  great American-style amber or red ales.

Finally, the best advice is to take your time. Remaining patient with this style is key. Let the yeast do what it does, keep it healthy and you will end up with a beer all your friends will come back for over and over again.

Issue: November 2007