OnTap Magazine

their pint to be the colour of a gold nugget. Ordering a pale ale was a leap of faith to someone used to drinking adjunct lagers, so if that ale wasn’t as pale as the drinker was expecting, complaints would ensue. Wanting to avoid disappointment – and grumpy drinkers returning their pints – brewers would let their customers know what to expect by using a simple colour descriptor to describe an ale that wasn’t quite so pale: amber. “The amber ale was one of the biggest craft beer styles in the early days,” says Soul Barrel Brewing’s founder Nick Smith, who started his career working in various US craft breweries. “Those beers didn’t necessarily share a flavour profile but they had appearance in common. People drink with their eyes so it was an easy way to describe a beer to someone who didn’t really know anything about beer.” THE ENGLISH AMBER One of the earliest mentions of amber ale was from London’s Collier Brothers Brewery, whose 18th century beer line-up included an amber. Flavour wise it would of course had little in common with today’s American ambers, but would have shared that same alluring hue. ONE COLOUR, MANY FLAVOURS Over time, the American amber ale developed into more than just a way to describe the colour of the beer and drinkers now have certain expectations when they order an American amber. But there are plenty of other versions brewed around the world with different flavour profiles. Inspiration for the style originated in England with the ESB and just across the sea, the Irish red ale at least has colour in common, although these beers are generally drier than their American cousins, with less body and a hop presence that is more floral than citrusy. You’ll also find beers labelled ‘amber’ in Belgium, the Netherlands and France (where it would be described as ambrée ), though while they share a common colour, the flavours will differ from those found in American versions. AFRICAN AMERICAN AMBER ALES The American Amber Ale isn’t an abundant style in South Africa, but great local examples can be found. One of the earliest and most enduring is Jack Black’s Lumberjack , a version showcasing malt flavour over hops, but still with that characteristic bitterness. Despite the confusing name, Triggerfish Roman Red is also an American amber, this time focusing on citrus hop flavour backed up by caramel malt. Also straddling the line between amber and red is Agar’s Red Ale – red in name but amber in style. The 400 Brewing Company’s Hydra is a beautifully balanced and highly quaffable seasonal brew that’s happily back on the shelves – at least for a while (check out the recipe overleaf if you want to try your hand at brewing your own version). And reportedly making a comeback this year is Devil’s Peak’s Woodhead , a much loved beer in the brewery’s original line-up that’s being revived to celebrate their 10th anniversary. It was a smart move. At the start of America’s craft beer journey, the average inquisitive drinker would likely not have known what a saison was, what IPA stood for or what to expect from a beer labelled Belgian or Irish. “Pale” is of course a relative term, but if you order something described as “amber” you at least know what that beer is going to look like, even if you’re not entirely sure what flavour profile to expect. PERFECT BALANCE The American amber ale is a lesson in restraint. The typical citrus notes of American C hops should be present, but not overpowering. The malt bill is crucial, with the key ingredient being at least 10% caramel or crystal malts. This of course brings the characteristic caramel and toffee flavours you expect from an American amber, but also a fairly full body and a malt sweetness that works to balance out what can often be a fairly assertive hop-derived bitterness. This bitterness, and the fairly low ABV (generally between 4.5 and 6%) are what give this beer its sessionability, for the amber ale – despite its ample body – is a beer designed to drink all evening. As the years have passed and the scene has matured, the American craft beer drinker has fallen out of love with amber ale. Once a stalwart on every tap list in the country, the style is becoming more difficult to find. Drinkers are more A lesson in restraint It falls in this cool little Goldilocks zone savvy and more adventurous and always looking for something new, something bolder or stronger or hoppier or more bitter, and American amber ale doesn’t fit that bill. But its middle-of-the-road flavours are exactly what attract some people to the style. “It offers a little more malt complexity than a pale ale but a little less ABV and bitterness than an IPA,” says Carl Nienaber of The 400 Brewing Company. “It falls in this cool little Goldilocks zone between the two styles.” So maybe I was wrong. Maybe it’s not the middle child, but the middle ground. The “not too hot, not too cold, but just right” sort of beer that’s suitable for everything from sessioning around the braai to serving at a fancy food pairing. The South African craft beer scene is still decades behind that of the US, at least in terms of convincing large swathes of the population to move away from their familiar lager. Perhaps rather than focusing on IPAs that are ever bolder, boozier, more bitter and packed with more hop flavour, it’s time for the amber ale to have its moment in the South African sun. 42 | Autumn 2022 | ontapmag.co.za