Make Your Best West Coast Red Ale | Craft Beer & Brewing

Make Your Best West Coast Red Ale

A decent jumping-off point for Red Ale is the American Amber, which ostensibly includes Reds in their midst. There are some worthwhile differences to note, though.

Josh Weikert 1 year, 2 months ago

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Not to get into yet another "that's not a real style!" debate, but let's take a moment this week to consider the West Coast/American/California Red. Look, I understand that it isn't a recognized style, either by the BJCP or the BA/GABF.

I understand that we have American Amber Ale and Red IPA. I understand that red is subjective in beer-color terms. And despite all of that, much like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart trying to define obscenity, we know it when we see it.

Moreover, I'll make a case any day of the week that whatever you want to call it (we'll go with just "Red Ale" from now on to avoid picking geographic "winners") the Red Ale is actually distinct from the other beers that try to capture it on their margins. If you're not brewing these, you're missing out.

STYLE

Clearly, a decent jumping-off point for Red Ale is the American Amber, which ostensibly includes "Reds" in their midst. There are some worthwhile differences to note, though.

American Amber identifies an SRM range of 10-17, which comes in a bit low for a truly "red" beer - your target is something in the 19-ish neighborhood for that rich ruby jewel tone that we're hoping for. Additionally, Red Ales tend to be hop-forward but not especially bitter, a trend in beers that we treat as new (I'm lookin' at you, New England IPA) but which fundamentally isn't.

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As a result, the 25-40 IBUs noted in the guidelines are actually a bit on the high side. The balance of the guidelines' description of Amber also generally apply to Red (crystal malt flavors in evidence, wide range of interpretations, etc.) but these distinctions matter. Finally, while it's certainly not required, I like my Red Ales with a touch more heat on them: I target an ABV of 6.5 percent, but you can aim lower, especially if brewing for summer consumption.

RECIPE

I start with ten pounds (4.5kg) of Maris Otter, and then top off the grist with two caramel malts and a dash of chocolate malt. Specifically, half a pound (0.23kg) each of Caramunich (60L) and Briess Extra Special malt, and a quarter-pound (0.11kg) plus a pinch extra of chocolate rye. Why those? Because the Caramunich usually delivers a solid dose of rich-but-not-burnt caramel flavors, the Extra Special adds a just-right-toasted-marshmallow flavor that can't be imitated, and the chocolate rye gives a touch of spice and some nice drying along with a deeper color.

This is a grist you can really fall in love with, and I recommend starting here for the recipe development of any middle-color-range beer, just to see if it works for you!

Hopping matters here, too. No early-boil hops in this beer. We want about 25 IBUs total, maybe as high as 30 if you plan to age it for a while (or you just won't soon be having a party when a bunch of people show up to drink your beer stocks down!). One ounce (28g) each of Citra and (bear with me here) Hallertau Mittelfruh at ten minutes remaining should be about right in terms of bittering while adding good baseline flavors of citrus and flowers, and another ounce again of each at flameout/whirlpool will boost the aromatics, especially if you wait for your wort to cool to below 190F (88C) before tossing them in.

Finally, I like (again, we're going a little off-book here) Wyeast London Ale III (1318) for this beer. It's a good flocculator (you want this beer very clear), and adds some character without chewing up the scenery, flavor-wise.

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PROCESS

Process is simple here, but has some warnings. Not many. One. One warning. Please, please do not dry hop this beer! Mash at about 152F (67C), boil, chill, and pitch as usual, and ferment at about 68F (20C) for the entire fermentation. Then cold-crash, package, and carbonate to about 2.5 volumes of CO2.

So why not dry hop? First, you don't want to overload on the hops. Malt flavors matter here. Second, and more importantly, this is very much a style that shows off its appearance, and a hazy, polyphenol-soaked mess of a beer just won't be as enjoyable.

That's not a guarantee with a dry-hopped beer, but the risk definitely increases, and it's just not worth it. Let it stand on its own, trust your late hops to provide the flavor and aroma you're looking for, and enjoy that brilliant garnet hue as you hold the glass up to the light.

IN CLOSING

I know it's not a "real" style of beer…except that it is. It's actually one of the original "craft" styles, and while it was overtaken in the nomenclature by the Pale/Amber/Brown color categorizations, it still deserves a place of its own in our breweries and taps and minds.

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