When it comes to beer, color matters. It’s often indicative of beer characteristics: lighter might mean lower ABV. Darker usually suggests you’re in for some roast. Amber equals caramel. You have your outliers that don’t conform, of course – Belgian Tripel, Munich Dunkel, and Oktoberfest belie the color-ist assumptions above, respectively – but they’re still suggestive. What interests me more is when color actually changes expectations within a style. Saison v. Dark Saison. Stout v. Pale Stout. And, of course, the many-hued variations of Biere de Garde. In this post, we’ll dig into what differentiates the Amber (or, as it sounds so much better in French, ambrée) from its lighter and darker category-mates, and how to strike the balance between them.
Biere de Garde (BdG) enjoys more flexibility than most, as a style. Not only do the component style descriptors give ranges (as they do for most styles), it also allows for three distinct (uncredited) substyles based on color: blonde, amber, and brown. Broadly speaking, hopping level is inversely related to color, but that’s just one metric, and our recipe construction and process should take more than that into account!
Amber is the trickiest of the three. By the guidelines, all of them should be “malt-oriented,” but that’s easily overdone in the Amber. As a target, I find the best approach is to increase malt complexity while keeping a firm hand on the brake on malt density. This should still be a fairly light beer, in the mouth, but if you start thinking “malt-first” it becomes very easy to create a beer that is too heavy, sweet, and clunky. We’re going to maintain our hopping load here, but increase the volume and impact of our character malts, which effectively reduces the perceivable hops character in the beer. We’ll also keep a very close eye on body and perception of body.
The base of this recipe changes only slightly, relative to my Blonde Biere de Garde: nine pounds of Pilsner malt and two pounds of Vienna get us off to a good, crackery, slightly-spicy start. To that we add half a pound each of Caramunich, British dark crystal (90L), and Briess Special Roast – this last is important, because it cranks up the light-malt complexity without adding too much (reality or perception of) body. Then, to both lighten things up in body and add color and complexity, we add one pound of amber Belgian Candi Syrup (40-45 Lovibond or so). The result should be plenty of flavor interest and complexity without a lot of heft and residual sweetness, but a definite sweet tang from the alcohols (OG should be about 1.073) and crystal malt flavors (which seem sweet, but don’t linger in the finish and aftertaste!).
Hopping is straightforward here: it’s almost (or actually) exactly the same as the Blonde Biere de Garde. 30-ish IBUs from a noble hops addition at about 30 minutes (two ounces should do it), then roughly an ounce of hops at flame-out or in the whirlpool. The only change might be in the type of hops used at the end. I still like the Fuggles/Hallertau blend, but the richer flavors stand up to a spicier or more-herbal hop, if you want that: Northern Brewer, Styrian Goldings, or the like can make for an interesting flavor/aroma contribution!
As for yeast, I see lots of recommendations for rustic, Belgian yeasts here, and I still don’t care for it, nor do the guidelines call for it. Wyeast 1007, German Ale yeast, will give you a clean, full attenuation. Let it do its thing, and let your other ingredients speak for themselves.
I mash this at 152F for 60 minutes, as usual. The syrup and yeast should do a sufficient job of keeping the body under control, and this is a good-performing temperature for attenuation in its own right. I add my syrup in the lauter, before turning on the heat, primarily so that I don’t forget about it! You can add it later if you like, but I prefer knowing it’s all “in there” as we go (and if you won’t be adding the syrup until post-boil, be sure to adjust your bittering hops addition to account for the higher utilization at lower gravity).
For fermentation, you can go a little warmer than with the blonde, since any esters produced will have more to compete with (and we kind of want them). 65F to start is good, and then allow the temperature to rise to about 70F after 4-5 days of active fermentation.
Finally, I carbonate a little lower here, just under 2.5 volumes. It helps keep the body in check, and I like the clearer field for the malt complexity to shine through.
One final recipe note: if you’re not happy with the flavors you’re getting because it’s too sweet or crystal-malt-driven (especially with age), try adding 2-3 ounces of Chocolate Rye to the grist. It will serve the same function as it does in Irish Red, adding just a touch of dry roast (but not really roasty flavors – thanks, huskless grains!) in the finish. I noticed that as this beer aged, it got a little too heavy-handed on the middle-crystal maltiness, but this small addition kept that in check. If I know I’m going to be aging this beer, I go ahead and add it to the recipe – you might think about doing the same!