Know your brew: amber ale

Going back to the classics

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Michael J. Casey

Amber ale in 2018 might seem a little passé in a world dominated by hazies, adjunct-laden stouts and barrel-aged beasts. But not that long ago, amber was the ale that practically built the craft beer house. Immensely sessionable and immediately recognizable, amber ales were easy to drink — making it an enticing prospect to macro drinkers looking for something different — while also being flavorful enough for seasoned drinkers in search of something lighter. And as an accompaniment to a meal, amber has incredible versatility, harmonizing beautifully with everything from deli sandwiches to spicy Indian dishes and lettuce-based salads. Carlos Solis, the former executive chef at the Sheraton Four Points/LAX, recommends amber alongside salad topped with blue cheese, caramelized walnuts, bacon and coriander vinaigrette.

Technically speaking, amber ale is a medium-bodied beer, traditionally malty with an alcohol by volume range of 4.5 to 6.2 percent and a bitterness range of 20 to 40 International Bittering Units. The name comes from the beer’s color, which has caused some confusion depending on which beer encyclopedia you read. Many beers, from India pale ales to extra special bitters to barley wines, have a decidedly amber hue to them, but amber they are not. What makes an amber an amber is the malt: soft and sweet with notes of caramel, raisin, maybe even biscuit.

Atop the amber throne is the old favorite: Fat Tire from New Belgium Brewing. First brewed in 1991 by Jeff Lebesch, which he modeled after a Belgian beer aimed at English drinkers, Fat Tire might be the most recognizable Colorado craft beer out there. Smooth and gently sweet with flavors of browned caramel and toasted biscuit, Fat Tire benefits from a little pop of earthy and floral hops — Willamette, Goldings, Nugget — to give the beer balance. It’s a remarkable beer, one you’ve probably had a hundred, maybe even a thousand, times but it’s just as good now as it was then. Heck, even Craft Beer & Brewing readers voted Fat Tire the 26th best beer of 2018.

Closer to home and just as familiar is Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery’s Colorado Kind. First brewed in 1993, Colorado Kind has proven just as stable as Fat Tire, though the two have distinctly different flavor profiles. Leaning more on assertive hops — Cascade, specifically — Colorado Kind retains the sweet malt backbone while using the resin and pine from the hops to give the beer a wildly different aroma and flavor.

Those hops are evident in the nose and mouth, but keep a close eye on the glass as you drink: all that sticky lacing clings to the glass in defined rings with each sip. Like reading the cross-section of a tree, you can tell a lot about a drinker by how many rings they leave behind.

2018 marks Mountain Sun’s silver anniversary. In honor of those 25 years, Mountain Sun is discounting pints of Colorado Kind to $2.50 during happy hour across all five of their pubs. It’s a fine time to rediscover amber.