With the release of the 2015 Guidelines the BJCP sought, among other things, to define with a bit more clarity a range of beers that had, since the previous revision, come into the market or taken on a new prominence within it, and which did not fit well into the existing categories from the previous edition. One such new category of beers – not a new style, but one that had previously been shoehorned into others – was the American Strong Ale. Although still something of a catchall category, we nevertheless now have some useful distinctions and targets to work with, and as the air begins to cool this can be the perfect time to try your hand at one!
If you peruse the guidelines for this style you’ll find some wide ranges in the vital stats and descriptions, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a general description that we can hew to. As the name suggests, this is a strong ale – but not so strong as to move it into the Barleywine category. The average is about 8 percent ABV, so we should be seeking some warming. IBUs are likewise high, running at about an even IBU:GU ratio. Color ranges from deep gold to amber. Why, then, is this not simply an Imperial IPA?
The answer lies in the malt, and that’s an important caveat. American Strong Ales, in their various incarnations, can certainly seem like IPAs, but scratch the surface of the flavor and you’ll notice that there’s a richness and complexity to them that is usually absent in stronger IPAs. Higher-Lovibond crystal malts are common, yielding toffee and raisin flavors. Body is full and rich. You might even have some roast in the flavor (though it should never be burnt). This means that the high bittering and hops flavor are balancing the malt, rather than what is often the opposite case in a typical Imperial IPA. Big, red beers with lots of hops are the norm here, and it’d be a mistake to ignore the strong malt flavors. Finding complementary flavors on both sides – hops and malt – are a hallmark of the style.