The tap list of the mid-1990s brewpub contains a trove of near-forgotten styles—extra pales, honey wheats, nut browns—any of which might suggest the nature of American brewing at the time. Ask for a style that represents that era, though, and I’ll give you an amber ale.
That was the midpoint of the “chromatic ales” that were the standard then. They started with golden ales and trotted through the color spectrum: pale, amber, red, brown, and finally ending with a porter or stout. It was an easy, intuitive way to introduce people to a beverage that many people still thought began and ended with pale, low-flavor lager.
So, why are amber ales the key metaphor for the age? Because they capture both the approach to recipe design and brewing process common to the ’90s and because they highlight the palate of the American drinker a generation ago. They were sweet, sometimes under-carbonated, and always full of caramel/toffee flavors. While sweetness has become popular again, the flavor of caramel has not. So, for many people, amber ales are like doo-wop or disco or grunge music—emblems of an earlier age.
Yet amber ales, transformed, are slowly creeping back onto tap lists. They look much the same, and as a mid-alcohol pub beer, they serve the same purpose they did back in the day. However, almost everything else about them has changed.
If we look a little closer, amber ale can tell us a story about how American brewing has evolved over the past few decades.
American ESB, Sort Of?
The origins of American amber ales are obscure. As far as I’m aware, no one has rushed forward to claim the first example—a testament to the style’s low station. Many examples of amber-colored beers pre-date the American brewpub staple, but we don’t have to look far past Britain to find the likely inspiration.
When I sit down with longtime brewer Van Havig to discuss amber ales, and I suggest ESB as a precursor, he agrees immediately and vehemently. “It’s entirely true,” says Havig, cofounder and master brewer of Gigantic Brewing in Portland, Oregon.
Havig started brewing in the mid-’90s, during amber’s heyday. He began his career in Minnesota and then spent time brewing at Rock Bottom brewpubs in Maryland and Oregon. Amber ale, he says, “was British beer made by people who didn’t know what British beer tasted like.”
Before we besmirch the honor of those pioneers who toiled away on their chromatic ales, part of the difference was also a question of ingredients.
Unlike British brewers, who had funky, old ale yeasts that evolved in the flat, square, and sometimes open fermentors of their Victorian breweries, Americans mostly used Chico or similarly “clean” ale yeasts that took a back seat to other ingredients. They also didn’t have lovely old malthouses turning out base malts of barley varieties optimized for flavor and color. They used pale two-row, and they flavored their recipes with specialty malts—of which far fewer were available—thus crystal malt was a major workhorse. Pale ales had a healthy dollop of it, amber ales had even more, and brewers also used it in greater or lesser measure in browns, porters, and stouts. The microbrews of the ’80s and ’90s tasted like caramel.
“You’ve got to remember what we came out of,” says Havig, our emissary from a bygone era. “All beer was highly attenuated, thin, low-flavor. Now, suddenly you have this beer that’s got body and it’s got a rich, malty flavor. Very simply, it was a different flavor in beer.”
The flavor of caramel may have been surprising in a beer, but it was otherwise familiar and comforting. People love sweetness—Havig notes the fashion for hazy IPAs and tiki-inspired beers today—and they found amber ales to be an easy access point into the new world of craft beer.
The Hop and Malt Shift
As another emissary from the old days, I can tell you ambers were sweet. Even to my unsophisticated palate, they seemed a mite unbalanced.
Havig says he brewed amber ales everywhere he went—and he makes one today at Gigantic, which he cofounded with Ben Love a decade ago. Although he didn’t make them ultra-sweet, that was once common. “Oh my God,” he says, recalling how brewers would start at 15°P (1.061) and aim to finish at 5°P (1.020), so the beer would finish around 5.4 percent ABV. “So, you’re putting in 15 percent crystal malt, and then you’re mashing at like 157°F [69°C],” he says. “Yikes!”
As they were maxing out residual sugar, brewers also were dialing back the hops. They used relatively mild American varieties—often Willamette or Cascade—in small proportions (“maybe half a pound-ish” per barrel, Havig says). A standard hop schedule, then, would have been at the start of the boil, another addition at 30 minutes, and one near the end of the boil. Grists and hops would vary from brewery to brewery and shift over time, but overall, that was a typical approach to brewing in the 1990s.
Things started changing around the turn of the century. Brewers were learning from each other how to get more interesting results from American hops; they also were drying out their beers, moving away from crystal malt. Havig says he had started using whirlpool hops by the late ’90s. Dry hopping became more common by the late ’00s. By the teens, brewers had shifted their entire approach to brewing. Techniques have evolved so that today’s brewers tend to use a light hand with kettle hops, instead emphasizing whirlpool and dry-hop additions. That started with IPAs, but it’s common to see even lagers and classic pub ales made this way now. Malt bills also have shifted pretty radically from the mid-’90s. Drinkers like paler, drier beers, and the flavor of caramel seems more dated than familiar.
Toward a More Modern Amber
Seattle’s Reuben’s Brews turned 10 in 2022, and one of the celebration beers was an amber ale called Metamodern, a collaboration with Georgetown Brewing. (Disclosure: Reuben’s is a past sponsor of my blog, Beervana.)
Reuben’s innovations brewer Thor Stoddard describes Metamodern, an example of amber’s evolution: “Our approach to a modern amber ale brings in elements that are found in modern IPAs,” he says. “All of our IBU pickup is from a large whirlpool to maximize flavor and aroma but keep the [bitterness] in check.”
Not much about these beers looks the same. Stoddard says he prefers citrusy hops for the style, a nod to first-gen ambers—although Metamodern gets those flavors from Galaxy, Nelson, and Citra rather than Cascade or Willamette. Besides caramel Munich and caramel steam malts, Stoddard adds a little color with dehusked roasted malt.
That’s also what Lincoln Slagel does at Emancipation Brewing in Fairbury, Illinois. “Our recipe consists of less crystal malt, with most of the color coming from debittered dark malt, like Blackprinz. So it’s far from syrupy raisin-caramel in character.”
The brewers like a little caramel, though—for many, it’s still an important piece of the flavor profile.
In Manhattan, Torch & Crown makes an amber called Transverse. Brewer Will Burkhardt describes the profile: “We used a blend of a small amount of classic American crystal malt with a larger amount of German caramel Munich to add more malt depth than the classic toffee bombs I grew up drinking.”
Amber ales have never been a style so much as a category, broadly including “red ales,” too. As in the ’90s, they range from fairly pale to deeper red and may contain anywhere from 5 to 7 percent ABV.
Yet the way that brewers think of them now is decidedly modern. They are malty beers, but far drier than in the ’90s. They have some caramel flavor but it’s an accent, not the dominant quality. And, finally, they use that toffee sweetness to balance a fuller, more saturated hop presence that comes from later hop additions—typically citrus-forward.
Modern ambers have a full, malt-forward body with some sweetness, a hint of caramel, and a saturated, if low-impact, citrusy hopping. They’re easy-drinking pub ales, yet they taste like a product of their time.
It’s a pretty serious style renovation that nevertheless satisfies older drinkers who remember ambers fondly. Havig says he’s found that younger drinkers, unaware of the “toffee bombs” of the ’90s, also like them.
“The weird thing is [young adults] are starting to drink ours because they’ve never seen one before,” he says. “‘This is amazing, it’s malty!’”
Because of their dated reputation among older drinkers and unassuming identity to modern drinkers, amber ales garner little attention and certainly no buzz. Yet breweries across the United States are watching them quietly find an audience. And why not? Everything about them may have changed since their ’90s heyday, but they’re just as effective as they were then: They’re beautiful, approachable, and tasty, and they make for a wonderful session down at the pub, or the beer bar, or the brewery taproom.