Note: in the current (2015) BJCP Style Guidelines, American Amber Ale is in category 19A. Category 19 Amber and Brown American Beer, contains modern American amber and brown warm-fermented beers of standard strength that can be balanced to bitter.
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 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, although many still call the style American Red Ale. The use of crystal malts in the red ale recipe 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 has medium-high to high maltiness but the caramel character is in the medium to low range. These beers are known for their use of American hops that give the beer sometimes intense hop flavor and aroma but only medium hop bitterness. Two of the most popular examples of this beer style are Boont Amber from Anderson Valley Brewing Co., and Red Seal Ale from North Coast Brewing Co. Amber Ales go nicely with grilled meats and BBQ with rich sauces.
The red 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 red ale 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."
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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