Serious Beer: California Amber Ales

Beer Reviews

Seeking out the best in malty, hoppy refreshment.


[Photo: Robyn Lee]

Our Favorites

Firestone Walker Red Nectar Ale Ballast Point Calico Amber

Amber ale is pale ale's easy drinking yet slightly beefier big brother. These beers are a bit hoppier and have a fuller body with a rich caramel malt profile. Bready, biscuity, and caramel flavors should be present and pronounced. Many, though not all, display the citrus and pine hop flavors and aromas that are representative of California and the Pacific Northwest, where these beers initially became popular.

Depending on where you are, American ambers are sometimes called American red ales, but that's just another name for the same style. Some of the beers we tried were rather robust and full, others were more subtle and restrained. Regardless of size, the key to a great amber ale is striking a balance between malt and hops. The highest-scoring examples we tried achieved that balance, and some tipped slightly toward the malty side.

Amber ales are fairly ubiquitous throughout the U.S., but they got their start on the West Coast. We'll look at other regions in the future, but for now I started with California, one of the places these beers can call home. (One other note: For sake of comparison, I didn't include double/imperial versions. We can drink those later!)

Serious Beer Ratings

***** Mindblowing; a new favorite **** Awesome, stock up on this *** Around average for the style ** There are probably better options * No, thanks, I'll have water.

Awesome Ambers

Firestone Walker Brewing Co. Red Nectar Ale Paso Robles, 5.4% ABV This dark amber beer smells of orange zest, floral hops, a bit of spice, and sweet caramel. There's plenty of citrus hop flavor as well, but the beer isn't very bitter. The malt tastes of orange caramels. Medium bodied and creamy. I could drink a lot of this. ****1/2

Ballast Point Brewing Co. Calico Amber Ale San Diego, 5.5% ABV The aroma is citrus and floral hops played against sweet, bready malt. Calico's English yeast character sets the beer apart from others we tried and provides a pleasant fruitiness that blends with the grapefruit hop flavor. Toasty and biscuity malt components provide excellent balance. ****1/4

North Coast Brewing Co. Ruederich's Red Seal Ale Fort Bragg, 5.5% ABV Very tasty, with floral and citrus fruit aromas balanced by light caramel and bready malts. On the palate Red Seal begins sweet before finishing dry with a spicy hop bitterness. The beer's flavor and body were on the lighter end of the examples we tried. ****

Mad River Brewing Co. Jamaica Red Ale Blue Lake, 6.5% ABV This beer pours a dark amber with a persistent off-white head. The aroma is a mix of orange, sticky sweet caramel malt, and a whiff of burnt sugar. Rich praline mixes with a bit of cocoa on the palate. It's exceptionally well balanced and smooth. ****

Bear Republic Brewing Co. Red Rocket Ale Cloverdale and Healdsburg, 6.8% ABV Reddish amber and slightly hazy in the glass. Red Rocket's citrus hop aromas turn tropical on the tongue. This was one of the more full-flavored amber ales we tried but still pulled off the delicate balance of hops and malt. There's a good dose of sweetness in the middle before finishing crisp and bitter. ****

Solid Choices

Speakeasy Ales & Lagers Prohibition Ale San Francisco, 6.1% ABV Prohibition pours a brilliant reddish amber. Grapefruit, resin, and orange provide the bitter balance to this solid beer's creamy caramel malts. There's a midpalate sweetness almost like sugary sweet tea before finishing with a hoppy bite. ***3/4

Stone Levitation Ale Escondido 4.4% ABV This sessionable amber ale greets you with a wallop of pine and sticky resin you'd expect from a beer twice its size. Bready malts provide some degree of counterbalance, but Levitation still leans toward the hoppy side. We were impressed by how much flavor was packed into that small of a beer. ***1/2

Anderson Valley Brewing Co. Boont Amber Ale Boonville, 5.8% ABV This easy drinking copper-colored ale has a distinct berry aroma. Bready caramel malts and toffee play against the beer's floral and grassy hops.This medium-bodied was another one of the milder examples we tried. ***1/2

Green Flash Brewing Co. Hop Head Red Ale Vista, 6.4% ABV This hazy medium amber ale smells like a handful of fresh Amarillo hops. Hop Head Red's caramel malt flavor, marshmallow sweetness, and touch of roast only partly balance out its hoppiness. This beer is delicious, but it's really a red IPA. ***1/2

Lost Coast Brewery Alleycat Amber Ale Eureka, 4.8% ABV Alleycat Amber pours a dark orange with an off-white head. It's light-bodied and easy drinking, with toffee and toasted malt balancing out the hop's orange and spice. Very smooth with restrained bitterness. ***1/4

Lagunitas Brewing Co. Censored Rich Copper Ale Petaluma, 6.75% ABV We smelled bread crusts and rich malt sweetness in the aroma, but not much in the way of hops. Bready and caramel malts dominate the flavor as well. Overall it lacked hop flavor and aroma, but enough were present to finish the beer clean and bitter. This was the sweetest example we tried. ***1/4


Napa Smith Brewery Amber Ale Napa, 5.7% ABV This slightly hazy amber ale was laden with caramel and toffee aromas, which at times came off as vinous. We tasted brown sugar and fruity esters throughout. It lacked the hoppy character of many of the other beers we tried, and there was almost enough bitterness to provide balance. The beer finished with a lingering sweetness. **1/2

Mendocino Brewing Co. Red Tail Ale Ukiah and Saratoga Springs, N.Y., 6.1% ABV Red Tail is a perfectly clear orangish amber with tall off-white head. Herbal hops rest on top of somewhat sweet bready malts. We found the malt flavor to be a bit diluted, starting with a caramel character and finishing more bready. There was also a tinge of hot alcohol. **1/2

We got our hands on 13 different amber ales from the Golden State, but there are plenty more. What are some of your favorites?

Disclosure: Ballast Point, North Coast, Lagunitas, Mad River, and Lost Coast provided samples for review.

About the Author: Jonathan Moxey is a Harlem-based homebrewer and BJCP beer judge. He hosts private beer tastings for Tapped Craft Beer Events.