Endangered Beer Styles: Amber Ale

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Endangered Beer Styles: Amber Ale

When I first dove head-first into the world of craft beer more than a decade ago, the idea that an American brewery would choose to get by without an “amber ale” or “red ale” still seemed like a quaint notion. It was the mid-2000s, and although the age of IPA dominance (supplanting American pale ale) was already beating down the door to establish itself, amber ale still felt, for all intents and purposes, like an immovable, immutable constant within the beer world—a style that had always possessed a respected position, and always would. “Amber ales are approachable,” I would read in the homebrewing textbooks I pored over at the time. “Amber ales are food-friendly.” Amber ales are a lovable symbol of “full flavor” and an easygoing act of defiance in the face of those pissy corporate lagers that the rest of the college kids were pounding on a nightly basis. Amber ales represented a lot of things, to a lot of people.

But more than anything, amber ales were everywhere. Nearly every regional brewery seemed to have a venerable amber ale or red ale brand that had been part of the portfolio from the brewery’s earliest beginnings. You could expect to find a few on draft at any bar with a decent beer selection. At brewpubs, they were even more ubiquitous, to the point that you likely couldn’t find a mid-2000s brewpub that didn’t have an amber ale as one of its core offerings. In this moment—and this was ultimately on the tail end of the style’s popularity, mind you—amber ale still felt like one of the most common, ubiquitous beer styles in the country, matched only by the likes of pale ale, IPA and porter. If there was a beer style Mount Rushmore, dedicated solely to the 1980s-2000s, surely amber ale would have secured a position.

Today, though? Well, some things have obviously changed, and amber ale as a style has passed from “reliable workhorse” to symbol of a bygone era. Walk into a hot beer bar with 40 taps tonight, and tell me if you see a single beer labeled as “amber ale” among the draft selections. Walk into most any brewery founded in the 2010s, and see how many year-round amber ales you come across. For craft beer drinkers who developed an interest in beer in say, the last five years, the idea of “amber ale” may barely even exist as a defined concept.

Of course, this isn’t to say that amber ale/red ale is somehow extinct. Breweries still produce large amounts of malty, ruddy amber beer every year, and customers continue to drink them … albeit, in decreasing quantities each year. 2019 was no different, as amber ale/amber lager were down in sales to begin the year, with no reason to believe the trend is reversing. Overall growth in the craft beer segment has been almost entirely dependent upon the fortunes of IPA for years now, and even as hoppy beer styles keep breweries afloat, those whose fortunes are tied to styles such as amber ale have often been those who struggled amidst the industry slowdown.

But at the same time, let me say this: I don’t intend this piece as a requiem, or a plea for some grand revival of amber ale among modern breweries. This is simply an acknowledgement of a once-ubiquitous beer style’s decline, a look into how that decline may have affected some of the breweries most associated with the style, and a remembrance of what the style meant to an earlier era of American craft beer consumers.

troegs-hopback-inset.jpgStill among the most aesthetically pleasing beer styles.

What Is/Was Amber Ale, Really?

Back in the mid-2000s where I started this story, the idea that you might have to describe the style of amber ale to a self-proclaimed beer geek probably would have been ridiculous—if you knew beer at all, then surely you had a firm grasp of what the words “amber ale” implied. Today, however, they’ve receded from the spotlight to such a degree that the younger generation of beer geeks may legitimately be unfamiliar with what defines the style. So let’s provide a working definition.

Via CraftBeer.com, which will do a better job of being concise than I would:

The American amber ale is one of the most widely enjoyed styles throughout the United States and serves as a cornerstone style of the American craft brewing revolution. American ambers are darker in color than their pale ale cousins, the presence of caramel and crystal malts lending a toasted, toffee flavor, along with the perception of a fuller body when compared to beers without such malts. Amber beer showcases a medium-high to high malt character with medium to low caramel character derived from the use of roasted crystal malts. The American amber is characterized by American-variety hops, which lend the amber ale notes of citrus, fruit and pine to balance the sweetness of the malt.

Amber ale, then, tends to be what we’d call a “standard strength” (from mid-4% to mid-6% ABV) style, which treads in the middle ground between hop-forward American pale ale and malt-forward brown ale or porter/stout. It’s less defined by hop flavors than pale ale, but tends to be hoppier than the average brown ale or porter. Everything about it is very “middle ground”—in order to really be an amber ale, it can’t be as hoppy as pale ale or as dark as brown ale. “American red ale,” meanwhile, was another term frequently used to imply more or less the same thing (as opposed to Irish red ale), being mostly a matter of a brewery’s chosen marketing.

It is a style, then, where subtlety and balance rather than over-the-top bombast, result in what is generally agreed upon to be the classical or ideal result. This has become an increasingly foreign concept to modern beer drinkers who have been indoctrinated to seek out the “biggest, boldest” version of whatever they’re drinking, and is likely a contributor to amber ale’s decline. Whereas in the world of IPA, you can make a well-regarded, admittedly delicious beer by throwing any sense of proportion to the wind and pushing the volume of hop flavor as high as it can possibly go, the same thing isn’t true of amber ale—you really wouldn’t want to drink one where the goal was “to be as caramel malty as physically possible.” A beer like that would probably taste like a cloying, unfermented mess—like a bowl of Grape-Nuts covered in black tea and bitter caramel sauce. The fact that amber ale, as a style, resists such hyperbole is exactly what works against it today.

At their best, American amber ales offer a subtle profile of mild sweetness, toasty malt, mild caramelization, pleasantly subtle hoppiness and a sense of fullness of body that goes beyond what you expect to experience in pale ale. They were brewpub mainstays for a reason—they went great with pub grub and appealed to just about everyone, including customers who were turned off by the hop bitterness of pale ale/IPA or were skittish about the imposing, darker colors of brown ale, porter and stout. Amber ale was always positioned as something of a happy medium—one of the first things you offered to a new craft drinker who was beginning to explore the beer world. Countless craft beer drinkers cut their teeth on amber ale.

Detractors, of course, pointed to exactly that sort of subtlety as a deficient aspect of the style, painting amber ale as boring, staid or lacking in assertiveness … and it’s not that they were wrong, necessarily. Amber ale is, after all, intended to be lacking in bombast or assertiveness, at least when compared with the most popular American craft beer style, IPA. The relative lack of intensity in amber ale, therefore, becomes a primary feature to some, and a complaint to others.

As the style progressed, more recent entries—not by coincidence, the most highly rated amber ales online today—have tended to push ABVs higher than the BJCP-defined “4.5-6.2% ABV,” while simultaneously upping their hop rate, becoming ever closer to and more difficult to distinguish from IPA. The vast majority of the highest-rated amber/red ales on Untappd, for instance, are either IPA adjacent beers in the 7% ABV range (Maine Beer Co. Zoe, Tröegs Nugget Nectar, etc), imperial beers with even higher ABVs, or are otherwise heavily adjuncted. The one thing you don’t see on that page: standard amber ale. It seems somehow fitting that the top two, in terms of overall rating, are imperial ambers from Tree House and 3 Floyds. Just for fun, here’s some guy on Untappd giving that beer faint praise, while simultaneously calling the style “deplorable.”


Amber Ale in Decline

Looking at most of the still-available examples of classical American amber ale, it’s hard to miss that they almost exclusively hail from older regional breweries, for the simple reason that the newer generation of brewers have by and large never established year-round amber ales of their own—the style was already in decline, and why brew an amber when you could brew a sixth IPA? Some, yearly releases like the aforementioned Tröegs Nugget Nectar, have the fortune of being well-established seasonal favorites, which helps keep a modicum of enthusiasm for the style alive—although at 7.5% ABV and marketed with hops in the name, it begs the question of whether “amber” is really a selling point even in that case.

Other significant, classical amber ales still in production can be found from breweries such as Alaskan Brewing Co., Bell’s, Rogue, Deschutes, Tröegs (HopBack Amber, separate from Nugget Nectar), North Coast, Anderson Valley, Lagunitas, Highland and Abita. In some cases, such as Bell’s, these beers are living legends at this point—a former flagship of the entire brewery, Bell’s Amber Ale was the first beer the company ever brewed in Kalamazoo, MI in 1985, and is “the beer that helped build the brewery,” according to Bell’s. Like other fundamental amber ales, however, it was steadily shuffled into the background by other offerings from the brewery, such as the seasonal Oberon and eventual flagship IPA Two Hearted, which continues to be central to Bell’s growth to this day.

Beers like Bell’s Amber Ale, on the other hand, gradually began to recede from the kind of ubiquitous access they once enjoyed. By the beginning of this decade, you were significantly less likely to find them on tap at well-regarded beer bars, as a culture that prioritized “limited release” batches began to take precedence in the draft market. You were likewise less likely to stumble across six-packs of amber ale at gas stations, supermarkets or beer stores with limited shelf space, as prioritizing access to numerous IPA brands became a necessity—a phenomenon that hit year-round, non-IPA brands from many regional breweries hard. Look hard enough, and you can still locate beers like Bell’s Amber Ale, but the total number of locations in which they’re available has shrunk, effectively making “amber ale” into an increasingly niche style rather than a mainstream one. It’s as we wrote about in our similar essay on non-adjunct American stout: A beer like the non-adjunct Sierra Nevada Stout went from “available at every package store” to “can barely be said to exist” in the same timeframe.

bells-amber-ale-inset.jpgBeers like Bell’s Amber Ale powered the rise of breweries in this era from local favorites to regional and national powerhouses.

What were the roots of this decline? Well, the rise of IPA as the standard-bearer of the craft industry obviously can’t be overlooked. Several generations of earlier beer drinkers (those who developed a taste in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s) were increasingly taken with the possibilities of hops, especially as new American hop varieties began to arrive in the 2000s and transformed what was possible in the dimension of hop flavor. Suddenly, instead of every single IPA being described as similarly possessing “hints of citrus and pine” (remember those days?), wild new variants began to emerge that possessed totally different dimensions of fruit-driven flavor. In general, the threshold for beer assertiveness was pushed further and further forward, as increasingly bitter (and then sweet!) IPAs and increasingly burly (and then sweet!) imperial stouts became the styles associated with American craft beer. In comparison, amber ale couldn’t help but look a little tired.

Moreover, beyond (and connected to) the rise of IPA, the American beer drinker’s palate simultaneously seemed to lose an affinity for the signature flavor of American amber ale: Crystal malt. Also referred to simply as “caramel malt” and available in many degrees of color/lovibond, a portion of crystal was once nearly considered a requisite in many American beer styles, from pale ale and IPA to brown ale, porter and stout. Even in something like pale ale, a “malt backbone,” as it was so often called, implied the presence of some crystal malt to balance out the flavors and bitterness of American hop varieties like Cascade, Chinook or Centennial. Over time, these beers became more and more likely to leave out the crystal malt in order to accentuate hop-derived flavors, but even in unrelated styles like porter and stout, use of crystal malt also declined. The profile of crystal malt itself—honey, toasty, bready and caramelized, all the way to dark/dried fruity at the darker end of the crystal register—had increasingly become passé, and no style was more dependent upon these flavors than amber ale. Even the industry’s attempt to turn “red IPA” into a thing a few years ago didn’t really seem to catch on, despite having those three magical letters attached to it.

year-round-ambers.jpgYear-round amber ales were once almost a given among larger regional breweries.

And here, we should fess up: Even publications like Paste certainly played their own role in the decline of styles like amber ale, chiefly through their choices of coverage. Case in point: Despite the fact that we’ve conducted blind tastings of almost every conceivable beer style, we’ve never done one for “American amber ale”—not because we wouldn’t like to, but because we knew that the amount of interest it would generate likely wouldn’t justify the time it would take to host the tasting and write the article. In primarily covering whatever was hot and “relevant” in the beer industry at any given time, we only helped reinforce the idea that styles like amber ale have fallen out of favor.

Amber Ale Case Study: New Belgium Fat Tire

There is no single amber ale more indelibly linked to the image of American craft brewing than New Belgium’s Fat Tire, and it’s likely the first beer that many consumers would picture when hearing the term. In production since 1991, it’s the beer that helped build New Belgium into a national force and the fourth-largest “craft brewer” in terms of the Brewers Association definition in 2018, behind only Yuengling, Boston Beer Co. and Sierra Nevada. It’s synonymous with the brewery, even serving as New Belgium’s logo. And despite the occasional misclassification as a “Belgian-style amber” over the years (it uses neutral American ale yeast, and homebrew clone kits are sold with neutral American ale yeast), likely due to the name of the brewery, it remains the most visible example of American amber ale in the market.

new-belgium-tire-logo-inset.jpgThe image of the Fat Tire bicycle is synonymous with New Belgium as a company.

And perhaps unsurprisingly, given its identity as an American amber ale and everything we’ve discussed in this piece so far, Fat Tire has now been struggling (and shrinking in production) for years. It has been a poster child for the struggle of larger, regional craft brewery flagships—especially flagships that aren’t IPAs. Just listen to how the company’s media relations director glowingly described Fat Tire in a 2013 profile to see everything that would go from being an asset to a problem:

“Fat Tire won over fans with its sense of balance—toasty, biscuit-like malt flavors and hoppy freshness,” explained Bryan Simpson, media relations director at New Belgium. “We try to emphasize moderation and balance. We feel that amber ales should not be overly malty, hoppy, bitter, alcoholic or sweet.”

And that’s just it: In a beer market where drinkers lost their interest in “balance” and increasingly learned to adopt extremes of flavor, you’re better off being “overly” malty, hoppy, bitter, alcoholic or sweet. The beers that people are now seeking out, especially beer geeks, tend to be bombastic in nature, whether that means in terms of sweetness, strength, “juiciness,” tartness, funk, or any other stick you want to use for measuring. Coupled with the sheer increase in competition, in a brewery field that has swelled past 7,000 with no sign of a decrease in new openings, having “American amber ale” as one of your most important brands became a rather scary proposition. We can’t say for certain whether this was one of the largest factors in New Belgium’s recent acquisition by Kirin-owned Lion Little World Beverages, but it certainly seems relevant. All we can do is report the statistics that are freely available.

We can say, with certainty, that Fat Tire has declined greatly in recent years. In fact, that single brand was down 17.5% in 2018 alone, forcing New Belgium to increasingly invest attention into growing brands such as the Voodoo Ranger lineup of IPAs, rather than the amber ale that for so long functioned as a steady flagship. At the same time, the brewery went through a round of national layoffs in 2018, and overall production from the brewery (in both Colorado and Asheville, NC) decreased from an all-time high of 945,367 barrels in 2014 to 848,609 barrels in 2018. It can be assumed that a whole lot of that lost volume was in the form of Fat Tire, which appears to be down again in 2019, although the rate of decline isn’t yet clear. Arguably, the one plus is that for each year of Fat Tire’s decline, it becomes less of a critical brand for NB—this may be a factor in why the brewery seems to have just about stabilized its contraction in 2019. With Fat Tire making up a considerably smaller percentage of the total New Belgium production, 2020 could conceivably even bring a return to growth for the brewery.

Is any of this the fault of Fat Tire, the American amber ale? I’d certainly argue no, and it’s really a shame in the end. It’s not as if the quality of Fat Tire has in some way slipped over the years, although I’m certain you’ll be able to find a beer geek to make that argument, totally overlooking how their own palate has changed in the last decade. It’s still the tasty, balanced, toasty beer it always was—it was simply left behind by the rapidly changing zeitgeist. A beer like that will always retain some fans, and will likely always remain a part of the company portfolio, but no healthy brand is ever bleeding out 17.5% of its volume in a year. Fat Tire didn’t deserve to be left in the dust, but the fact that it happened is simply a perfect illustration of the fickle nature of craft beer consumers … many of whom cut their teeth on beers like Fat Tire, before abandoning it for a shinier new toy. So it is with amber ale as a whole.

Pour One Out for Amber Ale

This entire essay has been an interesting exercise in considering the history and struggles of a beer style for which I don’t necessarily have a specific passion. Unlike, say, American non-adjunct stout, amber ale isn’t one of those styles I’ve always loved since I became interested in craft beer in the mid-2000s. I am, in fact, similar to so many of the beer drinkers I described in this piece: I drank a whole lot of amber/red ales in the back half of the 2000s, and then considerably fewer of them as the beer scene evolved through the 2010s. In other words, I was often as taken with hyped new styles and breweries as everyone else, and the one thing that none of those nouveau breweries was making was old-fashioned amber ale. It was easy for the style to become both out of sight and out of mind.

As time goes by, however, I do increasingly feel it was a style that always had merit, and continues to have merit today—arguably, more than ever, functioning as amber ale now would as a more balanced, nuanced alternative to so many currently popular styles that are primarily hedonistic in their construction. Perhaps we SHOULD take a minute to quaff one of the still-available regional brands of amber ale, if only to reset our points of reference on concepts like “balance.” Maybe it WOULD be interesting if the younger, hyped crop of breweries applied their considerable skills toward something so seemingly simple as amber ale—who knows how ultimately influential those results might be?

Ultimately, I know that scenario isn’t likely, and I’m not about to get up on a soapbox and mount a “bring back amber ale” campaign. I’ll simply note that for everything it gave to the craft beer community over the course of decades, we shouldn’t brush amber ale aside quite so easily. It truly was one of the foundational building blocks upon which our love of beer has been built, and a symbol now of an earlier era in beer appreciation where subtlety was viewed as a feature, rather than a weakness. It might be most accurate to say that if I could revive anything from the era of amber ale’s ascendency, it would be that appreciation for what we now view as mundane.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s a cloud outside I simply must yell at.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.