Amber Ale is a ‘style’ typically referring to a pale ale with some amount of crystal malt added to create the amber or copper color. It also very much seems to me to be a generic term used to classify any beer that is not either IPA/Pale or Stout/Porter. An expectation of beer drinkers often have of Amber Ale is that it will be more malt driven than hop driven and that it will offer a smooth, semi-sweet flavor, consistent from start to finish. This is indeed a proper foundation for a medium bodied, medium colored beer, but it need not end there.
Beer is about balance. Now, I know that much of today’s IPA production is only balanced if your scale tilts exclusively towards hops but, regardless, many of the best beers offer the best balance. At Troegs in Harrisburg, PA they live by this statement and have produced one of the best representations of ‘Amber’ Ale that you can readily acquire today. Of course, I am talking about Hop Back Amber.
I began thinking about this a little more after I took the easy way out and classified Hop Back as an IPA. It was easy to look at the hop profile of this beer and just call it an IPA as a way of noting that it would be hoppy and would meet the expectations of most novice IPA consumers. That may be the case, but there is an important difference between a loose fitting classification and what Troegs is trying to do with this beer.
Hop Back Amber is a leader in a hard-to-define category of beer that has left most beer drinkers passively accepting the category with a dulled enthusiasm for many of the beers that fall into it. Instead, we should be celebrating the potential of Amber beers and calling for more like Hop Back Amber. That is, of course, if you enjoy a hoppy side to your copper colored malty beer.
I view the presence of Hop Back Amber on the shelves of beer stores as a call back to an often over looked style, as an influential brew that intrigues and inspires. Troegs is not alone in making an excellent amber beer. Boulder’s Hazed and Infused is a fantastic example, with a bright aroma and a new can package! Maine Beer Company makes Zoe, a “Hoppy Amber” that is unusually good. These beers all show a hop character on top of a malty back bone that creates a delicious balance.
Admittedly, I am a hop-head so perhaps I am pushing for more beers that meet my palate standards. More and more, however, I find myself advocating for balance and flavor. It is the taste that carries the day and keeps us thirsting for more.