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.