At this time of year, it is clear that winter is coming. Peak fall colors have passed and the remaining leaves have turned brown. There’s a cold snap in the air, but deep frost hasn’t set in yet. And the worrying threat of snow is ever present.
The season is perfect for malty beers with colors that match the scene. Sweet and soothing, but not overpowering, American amber and dark ales are perfect. Caramel malt, caramel and subtle roasting foreshadow the bold, boozy beers to come, but their low alcohol content and generally light body make them perfect easy drinkers for the ups and downs of a Minnesota fall.
Both styles came of age in the early days of American craft brewing, but are rooted in the ales of England. English browns and strong bitters inspired American brewers who sought to bring variety and flavor to a world of seamless pale lagers. They took those styles and amped them up, applying American sensibilities and ingredients like Pacific Northwest citrus and pine resin hops.
American amber beer is a cousin of American lager, but with a greater emphasis on malt. Caramel is always in the lead, accompanied by American hops with citrus and resin. But brewers have wide latitude over hop bitterness, alcohol, and flavor intensity.
The unforgivables of Rush River Brewing Co. in River Falls, Wisconsin was my favorite “I feel like just beer” pick in bars and restaurants. I rarely see it on tap anymore, but it’s still readily available in bottles. It is a strong, easy-drinking beer; nothing is above. There’s a lot of caramel malt flavor, but it’s not sweet. The medium bitterness serves as a counterbalance. Herb and citrus hops provide a subtle accompaniment. This is a great anytime beer.
Amber Ale Bell Brewery in Michigan is another old classic of the style and a must for anyone who loves malty beers. Caramel leads, but it’s joined by light notes of brown bread with a toasted crust. The bitterness is low, as is the herbal hop flavor. It ends dry with a subtle hint of toast.
Closer to home, try High amber ale from Stillwater’s Lift Bridge Brewing Co. This one pushes the rye bread malt just a step further than Bell’s. The characteristic caramel is still present. It is complemented by a subtle sweetness from the honey used in the brew. The bitterness is very low and the hop flavor is almost nil. Elevated Amber reminded me of an Oktoberfest märzen with added caramel flavor.
Finnegans Irish Amber is another local amber ale that has been a mainstay of Twin Cities beer. It is lighter than most ambers and has a more pronounced presence of toasted grains in addition to caramel. There’s even a slight hint of roasting if you’re looking for it. It is an approachable drinker that will appeal to a wide range of beer lovers. You can also do good while enjoying a good beer: thanks to its Finnegans Community Fund, the Minneapolis brewery donates a large part of its profits to local food departments.
In the early days of amber beer, there was a West Coast hoppy version of the style that is now sometimes referred to as a red IPA. Blood of the Chicago Unicorn Pipeworks Brewing Co. is audacious in every way. It is moving forward with an assertive bitterness. Flavors of grapefruit, citrus peel and pine resin hops take center stage. The hops rest on a solid base of caramel malt with light hints of toasted grains. The malt mostly disappears in the dry finish, leaving only citrus and pine.
Bold, brown and bitter
Like its lighter colored cousin, American dark beer has its roots in early craft brewing, reapplying American sensibilities and ingredients to a traditional English style. The alcohol is slightly higher and the flavors a little bolder. The bitterness and roasted malt are more pronounced compared to an English brown. The flavor of the hops is also enhanced and generally exhibits the distinctive character of American hop varieties.
Moose slime from Big Sky Brewing Co. in Montana is one of the best known examples. It’s tasty enough to deserve attention, but not so much as to interfere with communication with friends. This is a perfect background beer for a social gathering in late fall. Semi-sweet with a semi-dry finish, it features milk chocolate as the main note. There is hardly any burnt or bitter roast. Moderate bitterness and herbal and citrusy hops complete the picture.
Ellie’s Brown Ale Avery Brewing Co. in Colorado is another old-school American brown. This lively beer has a strong bitterness coming from both hops and roasted malt. Bitter dark chocolate is the main note, with accents of nuts, toast and brown sugar smoothing the edges. Subtle herbal hops rise above.
Excelsior Brewery Bayside Brown Ale is a flavorful yet balanced take on the style. It floods the tongue with a puff of chocolate à la Tootsie Roll. Caramel-biscuit malt and a touch of grassy hops add layers of complexity. There is only a hint of roasted barley character until a late roast kick enhances the dryness of the finish.
California Anderson Valley Brewing Co. puts its own spin on style with Black Rice Ale. The addition of Chinese black rice gives this beer a delicious roasted nutty flavor that pairs perfectly with low levels of chocolate malt and dark rye bread. Notes of dried fruit and raisin rise to the surface as the beer warms up in the glass. At just 3.8% alcohol, it’s a good choice for an extended bonfire on a chilly fall night.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer world’s version of the sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He organizes private and corporate beer tastings in the Twin Cities and can be contacted at [email protected]