By Gail Oberst
For the Oregon Beer Growler
It happens every year when I serve this style at our monthly blind tasting. Someone asks: What are amber and red ales? And as usual, I talk about toasted malt flavors that lend robust, sweet, caramel or fruity flavors, with emphasis on balance, even though in Oregon you may find this style hopped to the hilt.
And as usual, all of my so-called expert opinions fall apart as my tasters move through Oregon amber and red ales’ variety of flavors, colors and textures — from high-alcohol imperials to Flanders-style sours and all variations between. I’m not alone in my confusion. Even the biggest contests in the U.S. put reds and ambers into categories together. The caramel and medium-toast malts give the ales their distinct amber to red colors and full bodies, but after that, especially in Oregon, anything goes.
So, with all this fuzzy variety, how do you know what you’re getting when you buy an ale named “red” or “amber?” You could spend your time reading the description on the label or bar menu – that might help. Sometimes, breweries name their hoppier reds and amber “IRAs” or India red ales. The higher alcohol ales might have an “imperial” designation. Or, you might skip the reading and go straight to the tasting. The combinations of flavors in this style are sometimes genius, sometimes edgy, sometimes weird. You decide. And take your time.
To get you started, here are the favorite reds and ambers chosen by visitors to our blind tasting:
Rusty Truck Fender Bender Amber Ale, Lincoln City 6.2% ABV; 35 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: Not your Mama’s amber ale, Fender Bender has notes of chocolate barley and an assertive hop character.
Consumer Comments: I’ve been on the road awhile and wasn’t sure where I was until I tried this – Oregon – hoppy, laid back. A nice red with a medium-hop character. Good malty flavor. Nice bitter finish. Dark beer taste with center of the Earth power.
Fearless Loki Red Ale, Estacada 7.5% ABV; 45 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: This big, bold red ale has a slightly spicy sprinkle of rye malt. Roasty malt flavors are accentuated by massive helpings of Galena and CTZ hops. Just like its namesake, it can be a little sneaky!
Consumer Comments: Unlike me, this beer has a backbone. I like it! Well-balanced, medium and delicious. Amber taste with a kick. Great beer with a perfect amount of bitterness. This could be dangerous, but I don’t care. Sweet aftertaste.
Full Sail Amber Ale, Hood River 6% ABV; 31 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: This amber is a sweet, malty, medium-bodied ale with a spicy, floral hop finish. It’s brewed with 2-Row Pale, Crystal and Chocolate malts and hopped with Mt. Hoods and Cascades.
Consumer Comments: Nice and malty amber. Good and sweet malty flavor without the bitter aftertaste. Very refreshing with a hint of roses and chocolate. Romantic! Valentine beer. Dark, but not heavy. Love it.
Elk Horn Viva La Rouge, Eugene 8% ABV; 20 IBU
Brewer’s Description: This sour red saison was aged on plums in a red wine barrel for 14 months with lactobacillus, pediococcus and brettanomyces.
Consumer Comments: Love this sour. Cherries? A sour beer! This seems like a higher-gravity ale, but it’s still well-balanced and level. I don’t like sours — well, I used to not like sours, but this one is tart and refreshing.
Leikam Grateful Red, Portland 7.1% ABV; 70 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: Chinook, Columbus and Willamette hops take this into IRA territory, but the specialty malts offset any overwhelming hoppiness.
Consumer Comments: Refreshing on a hot, summer day. Woodsy. This is odd, but good. I’d want to drink it with split pea soup. Very good. Enough hops to be an IPA. Roses?
GoodLife Redside IRA, Bend 6% ABV; 50 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: Named for the unique subspecies of rainbow trout found only in Oregon’s Deschutes River, Redside India Red Ale is one of a kind. Bright hops and a red malt base create a flavorful, aromatic and balanced ale with notes of guava nectar and a fresh floral hop bite.
Consumer Comments: Very balanced, unlike me. I can, and will, drink this all night! Light and tasty, and pretty hoppy for a red — just the way I like it! Oregon-style.
Royale The Visitor Red Ale, Portland 6% ABV; 42 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: This is a rich, malty, flavorful red ale with a lush red color and a subtle tropical fruit and berry hop aroma. Medium-bodied, this ale has toffee, caramel and baked bread flavors that are malty, but not too sweet.
Consumer Comments: I like the malt. I’d like some more of this, please. Pretty beer! Perfect malty taste with just the right hopping. Another glass, please. Great!
Stickmen Red Kit Northwest Red Ale, Lake Oswego 7.1% ABV; 75 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: This Northwest red beautifully balances four different malts with four fruit and citrus-forward hops for a harmonious drinking experience. The ale is dry-hopped with Amarillo, Citra, Pacifica, and Simcoe hops.
Consumer Comments: Nice hop nose and aftertaste, almost like a red or amber IPA. It’s been a long day, but with this beer, the night will finish nicely. Long live the night! Love this one! Excellent bitterness.
Plank Town FURTHR Ambr, Springfield 5.8% ABV; 32 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: A smooth, malty, English-style ale with seven U.K. malts balanced by a variety of noble hops, leading to a clean, dry finish.
Consumer Comments: Smooth! It’s sweltering out, but this beer makes it worth it. My mouth feels wonders. Is this a brown? I like it. Take it to the park, forget your troubles and watch the river go by. This one goes down easy.
Worthy Eruption Imperial Red Ale, Bend 8% ABV; 100 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: The numbers say it all. This brew is bursting with flavor. There are six pounds of hops per barrel, including Cascade, Centennial, Crystal, Meridian and Mandarina Bavaria. Despite all of that volcanic bigness, Eruption is incredibly smooth.
Consumer Comments: Two Exclams!! Oh my king, as in, King Louis IV. Sweet, malty and good. Pretty hoppy for a red, but nice citrus flavor. The malt balances the hops, making it very drinkable.
Burnside Too Sticky to Roll IRA, Portland 6.2% ABV; 72 IBUs
Brewer’s Description: This is a Northwest-style red ale with medium bitterness accented by chocolate malt and candy-like sweetness from caramel malt. It is brewed with Centennial and Millennium hops for both bitterness and hop aroma.
Consumer Comments: Well-balanced with depth. Smooth between sweet notes and bitterness. That’s real good. Malty enough for a 95-degree day. I could drink this with a nice steak dinner. Mommy just took me to the candy shop and bought me a drink.
By Gail Oberst
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Red ales are a beloved style in Oregon and in the Northwest, so you would think it would be easy to find an official description. But alas, no. Even the almighty Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), the oft-cited, standard-bearer of beer styles lumps red ales in with ambers, classifying them together in one broad category.
Part of this confusion is rooted right here in the Northwest, where we traditionally call our red-hued ales “red ales,” as opposed to American ambers. Our great region has restarted the red ale madness, and we expect BJCP to follow our lead. Whether they do or not, red ales prevail here.
Let’s agree with BJCP that Oregon reds, like ambers, can vary in color from dark orange to a brownish-red. And like many Oregon ales, they can have a range of hoppiness — both bitter and aromatic — depending on the hops used. But where reds differ from pale ales, aside from the color, is in the malty, sometimes caramel flavors that can add sweetness, fruitiness and froth to the beer. This malty goodness in reds can be surprisingly bold or a subtle balance to a hop-forward beer. In Oregon, reds just can’t be pinned down. Every brewer seems to take on the style with a fresh hand.
So here’s the challenge: You can’t pick up a red ale in Oregon and know exactly what you’re going to get, just from the style. You have to try them all and then decide. So get busy.
Here’s a good place to start. Our consumer tasters, a different group each month, chose and commented on the following eight Oregon red ales in a blind tasting at F.H. Steinbart Co. in Portland:
13 Virtues: Rip City Red, Portland 6.0 percent ABV, 50 IBUs
Brewery Description: This beer is for people who love IPAs but like a little more malt sweetness. Malts include American two-row, Munich, Carapils, Crystal 15 and Crystal 120, with a little chocolate malt to add some oomph. We then throw in Palisade, Amarillo and Centennial hops for a balanced, drinkable beer.
Consumer Comments: Malty oatmeal, crisp and pleasant. Good clean beer. I would drink this again. Full-bodied. Very good. That’s a hoppy taste I can handle. Slightly hoppy -- not too bad!
Lompoc: Proletariat Red, Portland 6.2 percent ABV, 32 IBUs
Brewery Description: Deep chestnut in color, this beer has a toasted malt quality with biscuit undertones leading to notes of caramelized pear and cinnamon. This complex brew ends with sweet malt flavors that mellow into a mild finish.
Consumer Comments: Solid! Sessionable red. Malty nose, great esters, smooth! Hoppy and strong. Very good! Hoppy with a honey taste that helps cut the hops. Candy, yum. After-dinner drink. Girls?
Boneyard: Diablo Rojo American Red, Bend 5.5 percent ABV, 30 IBUs
Brewery Description: This deep amber ale is extremely well-balanced and very drinkable. It appeals both to the hop lover and non-hop lover. This beer is double-hopped with Cascade and Delta hops.
Consumer Comments: Good refreshing beer for a hot summer. Light and well-blended with the hops. Nice, not too hoppy and a good red beer. Very pleasant. Could drink all day. Dark fruit, jam and hops. Mild and drinkable. Hot day, good beer. Gets me in the nether regions.
Wild Ride: 3 Sisters American Red Ale, Redmond 6.5 percent ABV, 45 IBUs
Brewery Description: Faith, Hope and Charity. The backdrop of Central Oregon features these lovely sisters which are three of the highest peaks in Oregon. We use three main types of malt and hops to represent these landmarks. This beautiful beer has a sunset red appearance to remind us of their presence at the end of the day. Like many peaks you might aspire to climb, these sisters can be both bitter and sweet, as the select hops represent the Northwest in every way possible.
Consumer Comments: Good refreshing beer for an Oregon hot summer. Good beer, clean finish, nice hops. Bright clean citrus flavors without bitter. A-OK. The best so far. Great!
Hop Haus Brewing: Route 66 NW Red Ale, Gresham 6.3 percent ABV, 48 IBUs
Brewery Description: A slightly malty, somewhat sweet finish with good hop flavor and subtle bitterness. This is a lighter version of the style with the signature red hue provided by the melanoidin malt. It’s balanced and drinkable for all food pairings and occasions.
Consumer Comments: Beautiful, light and refreshing. Smooth, malty and refreshing. Great for a hot afternoon on the back porch. Fruity, light raspberry. Complex flavors. Smooth and delightful. One of my favorites.
McMenamins: Red Rhino, Portland Crystal Brewery 6.32 percent ABV, 82 IBUs
Brewery Description: Brewed by Stephen Harper and Drew Phillips, Red Rhino is a red ale, rich in color and flavor, with just the right combination and amount of crystal malt to give this ale its signature, deep red hue. It’s hopped with pungent Centennials and Cascade hops.
Consumer Comments: Clean, very classic light red ale. Drink this one cold. Creamy and hoppy. Kind of milky smooth texture. Good.
Burnside: Too Sticky to Roll, Portland 6.2 percent ABV, 78 IBUs
Brewery Description: Quaffable yet chewy India red ale (IRA).
Consumer Comments: My name is smooth. Nice summer ale. Peppery and dry. Would go great with barbecue. Hop-forward with a smoky finish. Hops, hops.
Ninkasi: Dawn of the Red IRA, Eugene 7.0 percent ABV, 75 IBUs
Brewery Description: An IRA bursting with tropical notes, this beer finishes with a subtle malt backbone.
Consumer Comments: Light, floral, refreshing. Hoppy and fresh. Nice. Fruity but not too sweet. This beer takes me to paradise.
Oregon Beer Growler each month invites consumers to “blind” taste a different style or group of beers at various locations across the state.