There are a lot of things you can say don’t fully define Amber Ales, but there are also a few unifying factors, so we can all calm down and discuss those. Those factors are… well, OK the first sort of is an amber hue. But it can range from quite pale yellow-orangey to almost a brown. It is how these colors are produced and not the colors themselves, though, that define the beer: the hue comes from the predominance of the crystal malts used in the brewing process.
These are barley grains that are soaked (to start their sprouting) and then roasted until they are a light to medium brown and producing a rich toffee/toast flavoring. The fact that some of their starches are not fully converted to a fermentable state also leaves the resulting beer slightly sweeter than other styles.
5 Fat Tire
Calm down, people. It’s on here for two reasons: New Belgium is a wondrous brewery, and Fat Tire is a sensation. It is not the best amber around. In fact, we tend to think the bready, grain flavors are a bit too prevalent, a bit too sweet. But it’s a very good beer, and it was a game changer when released in the early 90s and help auger in the golden age of beer we enjoy today.
4 Full Sail Brews
Full Sail brews their amber ale with all the right chops. It is arguably superior, even, to Alaska’s Amber Ale, but there is a hoppiness to the Full Sale amber not entirely congruent with the profile you’d expect from an Amber, thus its place on the list but not its topping the list. Ultimately these ratings are about the beer itself and the beer as it fits into its style profile, so we have to be fair and say this great brew comes in at #4. Copper hue, well blended malt and hops, 5.5% ABV, a lovely brew.
3 Hop Head Red
OK, we may be slightly biased for any beer Green Flash Brewery makes, but they deserve it because the beers they make are so damn good. And this’n here, the Hop Head Red? My god… it’s like an Amber IPA. In fact, lots of people call it that. At 7% ABV it creeps up into the zone we’d expect from this much potent toasted malt and sweet/bitter hop interplay. In fact, if we weren’t so impressed with the low ABV of the Stone Levitation, these beers would probably switch places in the lineup.
2 Stone’s Levitation Ale
Stone’s Levitation Ale is truly a feat of brewmanship (it’ll be a word soon enough, spellchecker!) and the folks at Stone Brewery, never ones for humility, know it. There is more flavor packed into this amber ale than we would have thought possible for a session beer of only 4% Alcohol by Volume. Normally you need to use lots of fermentable ingredients for lots of flavor, and you thus end up with both lots of flavor and lots o’ booze! In this case, and we’re really not sure what recipe they used, you get a “big” amber flavor, with rich, roasted grain flavors braced by strong citrusy hops (stronger than usual for the style, in fact) and you can drink them all afternoon long!
1 Alaskan Amber
We start with this brew because while it may not be the “best” on the list, it is a flagship for the style. It has just the right balance of toffee and bread flavors in the malt body and just the right hop profile to balance it, skewing toward the mildly sweet over the bitter. And yes, its color is a lovely amber, of course. Pour yourself a glass with a half inch of head or so and enjoy the unfolding flavors as it warms over a little while. If you can sip it slowly, that is.
Now sidle up to the bar and order an amber with confidence, friends! One more good thing about ambers? They go with pretty much anything. After dinner, with chicken or steak, at a ballgame or in the backyard, there’s never a bad time for an amber or five!