Nov 28, 2023

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American Beer Month: 2000 Tasting
Pale, amber: Any difference?

by Scott Birdwell

Scott Birwdell leads this tasting of amber and pale ales. He is a master judge in the Beer Judge Certification Program and proprietor of DeFalco's Homebrew Supplies in Houston, Texas.

Real Beer asked me to sample some American Amber and Pale Ales and give you my thoughts on them. In some ways, this seemed to be a "shotgun" approach, being rather broad in its scope. Technically, pale ales are supposed to be different than amber ales, although in practice, the distinction seems to blur. Theoretically, the pale ales should be a bit lighter in hue, with a bit more hop character and bite.

My fears were compounded upon visiting Specís Liquor Warehouse, Houstonís largest purveyor of beers, wines and spirits. Frankly, there was more selection than I had anticipated. I was beginning to think that I should choose either pale ales or amber ales. Being a glutton for punishment, I opted for both.

The results were mildly surprising: color varied hardly at all, and some of the "amber" ales were hoppier than the "pale" ales, and vice versa. In other words, the distinction between these two styles, or substyles, if you will, just didnít materialize. We tasted eight different brews, and this is what we came up with:

Fat Tire Amber Ale (New Belgium - Fort Collins, CO): This popular amber ale showed a medium amber hue, with a malty/grainy aroma. The flavor was malty, but not "rich" in maltiness as say an Octoberfest or Maibock. The fact that this ale is just plain low in bitterness and virtually devoid of hop character and bite, contributes to the perception of a malt emphasis. I also detected a bit of "earthy" character in the beer, perhaps not unusual for a "Belgian/American" amber ale. Overall - not exciting!

Boulder Amber Ale (Boulder Brewing - Boulder, CO): One of the survivors of the microbrewery wars, Boulder Amber Ale has been in and out of my local market over the years. Like the Fat Tire, this ale had a medium amber hue, and I could detect a grainy malt aroma mixed with some buttery diacetyl overtones. This carried through to the flavor, which was also malty/grainy up front with a fruity, estery finish. Unlike the Fat Tire, I could actually detect some hops in the flavor, especially in the finish. Hops are my friend!

Flying Dog (Doggie Style) Classic Pale Ale (Denver, CO): The third Colorado amber/pale ale we tasted was Flying Dog Pale Ale. Despite the name, I found this brew to be a deeper shade of amber than the so-called "amber" ales. The aroma is definitely floral. Yes, my friends, HOPS! The bouquet virtually dripped of floral "C" hops. That means I suspect that theyíre using some Cascades, Chinook, Centennial, or Crystal hops in this brew. These "C" hops almost bash you in the head with floral, perfumey aroma and flavor. Oh, yeah! Even better, the hoppiness actually carries through to the flavor. This Dog bites back! The bitterness is tempered with some maltiness which makes for a nice balance. Overall, this was one of my favorites of the evening.

Red Hook ESB "Rich Amber Ale" (Seattle, WA): Like most of the beers of the evening, this, too, had a medium amber hue. The bouquet is somewhat grainy, but not assertively so. The flavor is a reasonable balance of grain and hops. Neither component really jumps out at you, but I really couldnít say the beer was bland, because it wasnít. Overall, a good session beer.

Red Tail Ale (Mendocino Brewing Co., Ukiah CA): A descendent of New Albion, the first "new" micro-brewery in the United States, Red Tail Ale was quite distinctive. The color, well, the color was the same as the rest, medium amber. The aroma gives you a preview to what is to come: fruitiness. The aroma was fruity, not in a malty/grainy or hoppy way, but more in yeast/ester way. This definitely carried through to the flavor, which was fruity from start to finish. There is a subtle hop character here. I canít claim that this was my favorite, but it was quite distinctive, standing well out of the crowd.

Ruedrichís Red Seal Ale (North Coast Brewing Co. Fort Bragg CA): Did I mention that I like hops? Well, did I come to the right place! Red Seal Ale is a hop headís idea of good brew! The color, like the rest of beers was medium amber. There was some of that floral hop bouquet found in the Flying Dog. However, the aroma doesnít do the flavor justice. This beer has a luscious hoppy bite to it. And, what I find extremely attractive about this brew is that there is as much hop flavor and character as there is hop bite. You know they must be loading this brew up with hops late in the boil. This beer combines this hop flavor with an attractive caramel malt flavor to balance the ledger out. He shoots, he scores!

Yellow Rose Pale Ale (San Antonio TX): I know this is beginning to sound like a broken record, but the color was, yep, you guessed it: medium amber! Unlike the other beers, the Yellow Rose had a slight haze to the appearance. There was a slightly vegetative, lactic aroma, which, unfortunately carried through to the flavor. The beer had a lactic twang and an astringency followed by malty aftertaste. This beer was not in good shape. The sad thing was I could taste that there was good beer underneath the flaws.

St. Arnold Amber Ale (Houston, TX): St. Arnold Amber is my local brew, and generally itís a favorite of mine. I must confess the bottle we sampled must have been an imposter. Oh, sure, the color looked like St. Arnold Amber, a light amber hue (hah! fooled you!) and the aroma was the normal fruity/malty mix that Iím accustomed to, but the flavor was off. There was a pronounced stale/cardboard flavor that I associate with oxidation. There also a bit of smoky twang that confirmed my fears. Iíve been known to drink a lot of this stuff, so I can say somewhat definitively that this was not a representative bottle. St. Arnold Amber is generally exhibits that British fruity ale character, with an emphasis on caramel malt. They put just enough Cascades and Liberty hops to keep the flavor in some semblence of a balance.

I thought it was somewhat ironic that the two beers that travelled the least distance: Yellow Rose and St. Arnold, were the ones in the worst shape. I could venture a few guesses as to why, but that would simply be speculation. I guess the moral of the story is that youíre only as good as your handling.