American Amber Ale is a phrase first used by startup American microbrewers in the 1980s as a simple beer description for consumers, but it soon found acceptance as a formal style name. These beers claim a middle ground between American Pale Ale and American Brown Ale, but often overlap the adjacent categories in significant ways.
European beer culture and American consumer sensibilities often clashed in the early years of the United States microbrewery movement. Tradition called for “pale ales” of a deep gold to full amber color, but consumers, taking a literal interpretation, expected “pale” beers to be straw or blonde—similar to familiar pilsners. In response, brewers sought names that more clearly communicated beer identity and the term “amber ale” was adopted by many.
While “pale ale” was a recognized style name that implied a specific set of attributes, “amber ale”—in those early days—was primarily a color description. Many beers labeled “amber ale” were broadly in the pale ale style, but the notation covered other styles with varying attributes including Scottish ales, Irish Red ales, extra special bitters (ESBs), and even German alts. Over time, a formal style description evolved for amber ale that recognized it as an American style, distinct from all its European forebears but closely tied to the American style of pale ale.
A proper American amber ale requires the aroma and flavor of American hops, but the malt bill sets it apart from its pale and brown compatriots. As with American pale ale, two-row malt forms the base. But here, medium- to dark-colored caramel or crystal malts constitute at least 10% of the grist so that the finished beer presents a notable caramel to toffee character. This approach also gives a medium to full mouthfeel or body in the finished beer as well as a perception of malt sweetness in the palate. Brewers avoid the use of black, roast, and even chocolate malts in this style so that the finished beers do not have roasted, burnt, coffee, chocolate, or even heavily toasted flavors.
The “American” part of the style comes largely from American hops, which impart citrus and piney traits to the aroma and flavor of the beer. Expression of hop character may vary from low to high in the aroma—allowing for more assertive maltiness on the nose in some cases. On the palate, hop flavor should be moderate to high, with the citrus or resinous traits leaving no mistake as to the origin of the hops.
When well-brewed, the style supports significant hop bitterness without compromising an overall balance toward malt. Medium to medium-high perceived bitterness (30–40 IBUs) gives balance to the malt character without stealing its leading role.
Like most American ale styles, amber ale offers some fruity esters from fermentation, but these are secondary to the malt and hop traits. The butter or butterscotch traits of diacetyl—distinct and different from the caramel and toffee flavors of the malt—are considered undesirable.
American amber ales may be slightly stronger than American pale ale, sometimes up to 6.2% ABV, but may also go as low as 4.5% ABV.