When anyone asks me what the “best” style of beer is, my first impulse is to say that there really isn’t one. Asking for a favorite style can be akin to asking which of your children is your favorite. But there actually is a way to answer that question in a substantive way. For example, instead of asking my father, “which kid do you love more?” you could ask, “which of your kids is the most financially successful?” So, instead of questioning the “best” beer style, what if we simply went with, “what’s a style that showcases lots of beer ingredients without overwhelming you?” Now we might be on our way to an interesting conversation!
For me, that style is the German altbier. But out of consideration for our American-hops-loving friends (and I concede that American hops, with their citrus and tropical notes, are a better fit for the warmer months), I will also make a strong case for the American amber ale.
The American amber is often described as a more malt-balanced version of the American pale ale, but that’s selling it very short. This is a style with substantial range, and while some versions are simply an APA plus caramel, that isn’t emblematic of the best of them.
Ambers allow for the use of a significant range of flavors—and sources of those flavors—making them a real playground for those of us who like to get creative. There are a lot of paths to the top of the mountain on this one, but there is one thing you must be sure to do: specifically, make sure you’re brewing an American amber
That might be easier said than done since so many styles butt up against it.
You want something that’s darker and more malty than an American pale ale, but not as dark and malty as an American brown ale. You want something with noticeable hops flavor and bitterness, but also something that showcases significant malt flavors. You want something less bitter than an IPA and less alcohol-forward than an American barleywine. And you want to take all of the preceding with a grain of salt because light touches of any of these—bitterness, alcohol, even roast—can be acceptable.
I love this style.
This ingredients advice is based on a beer that (at the time I write this) is competing in the final round of the National Homebrew Competition—though, given the level of competition, I might be too ahead of myself to predict (but I can hope) that by the time you read this it will be an NHC medal-winner. Still, these ingredients have served me well over the years and provide a good target for you to aim for in a style-crowded flavor neighborhood.
First, alcohol: I brew ALL my American ales (no matter their color) to an OG of 1.060. It ensures a reasonable amount of alcohol, but guarantees it won’t be too big a player.
Grist is actually a bit more complicated than usual since it’s going to have to compete with hops, and I can’t guarantee that the subtler flavors in the malt will come through. So I start with 75 percent Maris Otter, and then add equal parts British crystal 45L and Munich malts (about 8 percent each). This ensures a healthy dose of bread, toffee, and caramel flavors as a backdrop for the hops.
I then add another equal dose (again, about 8 percent) of a higher-Lovibond crystal (Briess Special or Extra Special roast are my favorites, though Special B or Crystal 120/150 are fine, too) to give some darker fruity flavor to the palate. The last 1 percent is Pale Chocolate malt (about 250L) for a hint of chocolate and a slight drying effect at the end of the sip. Don’t go any darker than this, though—most other chocolate malts will add flavors or sensations that overwhelm or distract from the hops that are coming.
For yeast, nothing too complicated. Some prefer the very uncomplicated White Labs WLP001 California Ale Yeast, but I like something with a touch of fruity ester, so I go with Wyeast 1007 German Ale Yeast. Season everything as a good chef would, right?
And now for the hops. You don’t need a crazy number of IBUs, but you do need a significant hops flavor, so I recommend no bittering hops (60-minute addition) at all. Instead, I do an ounce (28 g) of Citra at 20 minutes, an ounce (28 g) of Amarillo at 10 minutes, and an ounce (28 g) of Equinox at flameout. That should yield about 30 IBUs and a ton of tropical and citrus-fruit flavors and aromas. Don’t bother with a dry-hopping here—that’d just be gilding the lily. Trust your kettle hops.
Ferment this as you would any regular ale. Go for 7–10 days in primary, with a slight rise in temperature at the end to help clean up any diacetyl or remaining sugars, and then a cold crash to clear it before packaging.
Be prepared to brew this a few times before you lock in your recipe. There’s significant room for interpretation in the style, and the ingredients give you a lot of choices. Just be sure that you don’t experience recipe “drift” and end up making a great amber ale into an okay IPA. You should end up with a beer that’s just as good on a hot day in August as it is by the fire in January!
The Illustrated Guide to Homebrewing is the first of its kind with detailed instructions and helpful photos and illustrations. From ingredients to equipment, process, and recipes—both extract and all-grain—The Illustrated Guide to Homebrewing is a vital resource for those new to homebrewing or those who simply want to brew better beer. Order your copy today.