Sunday, February 17, 2013

Brewing a Classic American Craft Beer Style: American Amber Ale

While the American macro-brewing tradition traces its origin to German immigrants attempting to recreate German pale lagers with domestic American ingredients, the modern American Craft Brewing tradition more closely follows the British ale-brewing tradition. Starting with New Albion, Anchor, Sierra Nevada, Portland Brewing (now owned by a large beverage conglomerate and operated by Pyramid), Roaring Rock (now Triple Rock), and the Hopland Brewery (now Mendocino Brewing Company); the first post-prohibition US craft beer styles were American takes on English pale ale (bitter) and porter.

Early on there was no distinction between Pale and Amber ales. The term "amber ale" came about to account for the difficulty found by some brewing pioneers marketing a copper-colored "pale ale" to people who were used to straw-colored beer. The breweries all had different ways of marketing their products. While some breweries (notably Anchor and New Albion) simply called their Pale Ales "Ale" with the understanding that customers would associate an ale with "pale ale" due largely to the renown of Bass Ale from England (truly a hallmark of the style for over a century until some beverage conglomerate took over and reduced the brand to its current state). "Amber" slowly came to define those beers that were deep gold and copper-colored beers, while "Red" came to define those that were between copper and light brown. An today "red" and "amber" are basically synonymous (~SRM 10-16) with "pale" usually being reserved for light or deep golden-colored beers (~SRM 4-8).

By the time I came of legal age (2004) American craft brewers settled into the divergent "pale ale" styles of American Pale Ale, American Amber/Red Ale, and American Blond Ale (which developed to account for extra pale, light-bodied ales). They were all made from mostly domestic 2-row and they were all usually hopped with the "new" American cascade hop, that came to define and influence American brewing for the next two plus decades.

Today a blond is brewed with usually 100% 2-row, or occasionally pilsner malt; a dose of wheat perhaps; and possibly a pinch of very light crystal or carapils malt. Blonds are usually low-bodied and not very hoppy. They tend to be subtle, restrained beers - owing their heritage as much to the pale lagers of Milwaukee and St. Louis as they do to the pale ales of Britain.

Pale Ales came to be defined by a medium body, made from mostly 2-row and a touch of crystal malt, generously hopped with cascade hops (later other domestic hops became associated with the style, as well). Pale Ales today are frequently dry hopped, but this was not in common practice in the halcyon 1980's when the style really came into its own.

American Amber Ales (sometimes still called "red ales") are usually maltier versions of American Pale Ales. Probably the truest to its roots as an American take on English Bitters, the best Amber Ales are balanced, with a medium body, rich malt backbone, and the unique aroma and flavor of modern American hops. Most of the originals featured cascades again, but several are made with milder more "English" domestic hops like Willamette or Glacier. Others are made with bolder contemporary American hops like Citra or Simcoe. The malt bill is typically domestic 2-row and crystal malt, but many feature some Munich Malt (usually domestic 10L), a small amount of wheat malt, and/or some dark malt to help color the beer. The beers are usually bittered for balance, with low to moderate hop aroma and flavor. Dry hopping is optional, but somewhat rare in the style.

While most breweries either had a "pale ale" style of pale ale or an "amber ale" style of pale ale, today many breweries have both. As such, the styles have further diverged and Amber Ales have taken the short end of the stick. Often they are a brewery's "girl beer" for "BMC drinkers." They are often cheap on hops, overly sweet, and clearly not brewed to "wow" any beer geeks, but to produce something palatable for guests who do not generally like beer or hop bitterness. And that's fine. Not every beer needs to be something I find delicious. My problem is that, as American brewers have stepped beyond the British origins of American craft beer with the rise of American IPA, the decline of balanced American Amber Ales, and the near-death of American Brown Ale; bars and breweries rarely have a truly balanced ale on their taplist.

Homebrewing to the rescue. A well done American Amber Ale provides a gentle hop punch, a solid (but not overwhelming) malt backbone, and a body and ABV that lends itself to easy drinking. My take on American Amber Ale features the best attributes of American Pale Ale, Düsseldorf Altbier, and English Bitter. It is clean, fairly dry, medium-bodied, with a rich malt flavor and a distinct cascade hop aroma and flavor. A while back I "settled" on a malt bill of 8% British medium crystal malt, 1% carafa special II, 20-25% Munich malt, and a base of American pale malt (2-row or pale ale); this time I decided to try adding a touch of wheat malt to add a little more body and head retention without deepening the flavor or adding any sweetness. My recipe is designed to be mashed between 150º F and 152º F, aiming for a somewhat dry finished product. I bitter the beer with the smooth (but not too smooth) super-alpha Summit, which was not available to brewers in the 1980's. And I feature cascades in the beer as first wort hops, 5 min hops, and flameout hops (a hop schedule that is itself a curious mix of 1980's and 2010's). Since I am brewing 12 gallons, I initially intended to dry hop only half of the amber ale, for the sake of comparing the two.

The brewday was distracting, to say the least. My fiancée was having a bridal shower at the same time as I was brewing, and her dad and uncle were hanging out with me during most of the brewing process. Since I made a few bonehead mistakes before mashing in that wasted over an hour, I decided to cut my usual 90 minute boil down to 60 minutes, and I didn't really compensate for the reduced evaporation (I boiled a bit more aggressively than usual, but that didn't increase the evaporation rate by enough). As a result, I ended up with a little more slightly lower-gravity beer than planned. No problem, though, because the recipe was for a beer on the big end of the style.

I pitched some second-generation BRY-97 and fermented at 62F. After 3 days, the majority of fermentation appeared complete, so I pulled the fermenters out of the fermentation freezer and let them finish up at ambient for a couple days until the majority of the yeast appeared to floc out. At that point, I put one of the buckets back into the fermentation fridge at 34º F to help the yeast floc out of suspension to aid in both harvesting the yeast for an upcoming IPA and to clear the beer for future consumption.

I was planning on drinking one of these soon and dry hopping the second, but now I am considering just dry hopping both of them, as my taps are full and there isn't a free keg to put the beer in.

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