West Coast Amber - Father Of The Red IPA?


In Support of West Coast Amber

by Mikoli Weaver (Brewing Techniques - Vol. 4, No.3)

Both reason and experience support the codification of West Coast Amber as a distinct style.

Staff Commentary by Vito Delucchi

This article was written in June 1996, a year or two before I had started my love of craft beer. The beer landscape was definitely a different beast in those days but it's interesting to see those heavily involved were pushing limits and trying to define new styles all along the way. Fast forward to today where the BJCP guidelines have been updated several times and there is a fierce division over Hazy IPA's and blurred lines in beer styles in general. As I read this article I imagine those same passionate arguments we have seen today in the craft beer industry taking place back then. As they say "There is nothing new under the sun". No matter what side of the debate you fall on, I think we can all agree innovation is good for the craft beer scene we all know and love. Without order nothing can exist-without chaos nothing can evolve. 

Although the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) had a category for American ambers last year, the guidelines were quite broad. American ambers (or West Coast ambers) are a legitimate style of beer and are probably more widely available than people realize. Whether its background status is the result of the style’s relative youth or the lack of exploitation in packaging, the fact remains that this beer from the western United States deserves its own category. Brockington quite capably makes this case using the examples of Red Tail Ale (Mendocino Brewing Co., Hopland, California), Atlas Amber (Big Time Brewing Co., Seattle, Washington), and St. Rogue Red (Rogue Ales/Oregon Brewing Co., Newport, Oregon), but I believe there are others that merit mention.
Out of all of the beers brewed in the United States, not many of them can be considered original or unique to this country. Many are imitations of the beautifully crafted products of Germany, England, and other countries. Given this, the task of creating a new category for American beer can be a difficult one, but David Brockington is right: “American ambers all have a distinct crystal note. This crystal characteristic distinguishes them from American pale ales. … Add some 80 °L crystal to Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and you have not only a different beer, but a different style of beer” (1).

In the Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, area and most of the inland parts of the Northwest, the first name in amber ale is Full Sail Amber Ale (Full Sail Brewing Co., Hood River, Oregon). Despite its small size, the pub in which I work goes through volumes of it, as do numerous other pubs outside our area. Like the Atlas Amber, the Full Sail Amber Ale has a fairly strong malt character, beautiful balance, and a smoky, rich, long finish. Full Sail Amber has an original gravity of 1.058, uses medium roasted crystal malts, and its 37 IBUs come from Cascade and Mount Hood hops. “I believe,” says brewmaster John Harris, “that the GABF guidelines should be slightly amended to include beers from, say, 1.046 to 1.060 [O.G.], and that the amount of IBUs allowed for the beers entered should be lowered” (2).

On the other hand, we have Rogue’s American Amber (appropriately titled), with assertive hops and a crisp finish. “We have to enter the red as an amber,” says Rogue’s John Maier, “because there is no GABF category for a red beer like the Rogue, even though the American is the one we really are trying to push [as an amber]” (3). The Rogue Amber is brewed in the long-standing Maier style of big beers, with abundant Cascade and Golding hops (53 IBUs and a large grain bill, including crystal 95, 115, 135, 165, and a color of 33 °L).

If you want to venture inland a bit, Tri Motor (Lang Creek Brewery, Marion, Montana) is akin to the Rogue but lacks the same balance, with only slight malt in the middle. (But, if you have always dreamed about a little roasted flavor in your IPA, Tri Motor is your beer.)

Another admirable, though unorthodox, version of the American amber is the step-mashed Amber Lager from Thomas Kemper (Poulsbo, Washington). This beer consists mostly of two-row and Munich pales with caramel 40 °L and 80 °L for body with local Liberty and Nugget hops. Its original gravity of 1.052 places it well within the category outlined by Brockington, even though it’s not an ale. Kemper’s amber (or even its Bohemian Dunkel) is clearly distinct from German-style amber lagers, like Bayern Amber (Bayern Brewing Inc., Missoula, Montana).

The previously mentioned ambers are perhaps the more obvious examples of American ambers, but what about the fringes of the category? MacTarnahan’s Scottish Ale (Portland Brewing Co., Portland, Oregon) won a gold medal in the 1992 GABF as — you guessed it — an amber, but received a silver from the Beverage Tasting Institute as a Scottish (4,5). Another Portland Brewing product that closely parallels an American amber is Malarkeys Wild Irish Ale. Brewed as an Irish red, it uses Munich and crystal malts with Northern Brewer and Mount Hood hops. Malarkeys is recognizably a Northwest beer; its distinct light caramel finish and Yakima hops place it in that subtle Fred Bowman tradition (6). According to Bowman (the brewery’s vice president), MacTarnahan’s is really more of an amber than a Scottish ale in the strict sense of the style (7). But can these beers be considered American ambers?

Gary Hetric, owner of Pioneer Homebrew and Beer Haus (Hayden Lake, Idaho), an on-premise brewing and supply store, agrees that many people are home brewing what could be classified as American ambers, but giving them different names. I believe, however, that the opposite is also the case: Gary and I both tasted several beers at the 1995 Coeur d’Alene Homebrew Competition that were good examples of Alts or ESBs but were misnamed as ambers, possibly because beers are too often categorized by color alone or by buzzword phrases (8). (I heard one beer representative describe Redhook ESB as an “ESB pale ale.”)

Not that color is unimportant — it is a very relevant part of judging, but is often ambiguous. Take ambers alone, for example. Atlas Amber has a deep coppery, almost mahogany, appearance. On the other end of the scale, Alaskan Amber looks more sienna or light orange — like that of John Courage Amber and other British-style counterparts.

All of the aforementioned beers actually fall into the category of American amber, as do many others. They are not pale ales, bitters, “best” cask ales, Scottish ales, browns, and certainly not anything like this new institutional “red” nonsense that has taken over the country. (What ever happened to those flash-in-the-pan “dry” beers, anyway?)

American ambers are indeed specific and unique to the Northwest and should be recognized as such. To do so, however, might split the category into light and dark, bitter and malt — or better yet, simply pale amber and American amber. The category line could depend upon gravity, IBUs, and perhaps even color (in °SRM).

I realize that the category was already taken from the American ale/amber category in 1994, and I don’t advocate endlessly splitting hairs. After all, we could continue to divide categories until the end of time.

Perhaps we could say American ambers are beers with an original gravity from 1.048 to 1.060 and IBUs of 35–55. Color should be at least dark red, burnt amber, or mahogany, to which a specific color value could be given.

An amber by any other name will taste as sweet, but giving the style its own name and place among unique beer styles is merited by the beer’s profile. Surely the universe of possible beer styles is not limited to the historic, classic styles.

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