When I go to my local watering hole and I step up to the bar to order, I always have a momentary adrenaline surge. In the few seconds before I speak the possibilities are limitless: I could have any beer on tap. But I know that as soon as I order a beer every door except one will close. There is tremendous pressure to make the right choice, and I usually find myself thinking, "Do I want a light beer or a dark beer?" Before I even scan the list of beers etched in many colors of chalk on the wall, I've limited my choices to light or dark, leaving out ambers and browns, the Goldilocks beers that are not too light and not too dark.
An informal poll of my friends was revealing. When asked, "What are your favorite kinds of beer?" the most common responses were "pale ales" and "dark beers." But when asked, "What is your favorite beer?" amber and brown ales, like Lonerider's Sweet Josie Brown, were often named.
How can it be that most of us prefer light or dark beers yet many of us have a medium-colored beer as our favorite? My theory is that light beers and dark beers are dependable while ambers and browns are not. When you order an unfamililar pale ale, porter, or stout, you have a good idea of what to expect, but when you order an amber or brown ale, you could get anything from dry and hoppy, to sweet and malty. When an amber or brown ale is well-made and well-balanced it can be not too sweet or too dry, not too malty or too hoppy, not too light or too dark, not too harsh or too mellow. It can be just right.
Today I want to show you how to brew your own just-right amber ale. According to the Beer Judge Certification Program style guidelines, American Amber Ales should be "like an American pale ale with more body, more caramel richness, and a balance more towards malt than hops (although hop rates can be significant)." Their color can be dark golden to red to light brown.
As the style guidelines suggests, these beers tend to be maltier than pale ales, but some versions, especially from the Pacific Northwest, can be very hoppy, especially in aroma. You'll want to use a high-quality base malt and some medium to dark Crystal malts. Try to ferment cool to keep the flavor clean. In my all-grain version, I use a few special techniques to create a well-balanced flavor, including steeping the specialty malts, first wort hopping, and late hopping.