Roy G. Biv may be the biggest name in colors but the only colors American drinkers should be concerned with are Pale, Amber, Brown, and Black. If you’ve spent any time perusing a beer aisle (one of my favorite pastimes), then you have undoubtedly seen beers labeled as Pale Ales, Amber Ales, Brown Ales, and Black Ales. While Pale Ales and Brown Ales originated in England, Amber Ales trace their heritage back to Ireland, and Black Ales were partly inspired by German Black Lagers, all of these styles have been Americanized by the craft beer movement. How does one “Americanize” a beer? Glad you asked! The two ways American brewers have taken European styles and Americanized them are by either using American rather than European hops or ramping up the strength and intensity of the beer to unthinkable levels by European standards. Something to understand about European drinking culture, and culture in general, is the strong grip of moderation and sensibility on the social customs. As one Brit once told me over a pint in Burton-on-Trent, “‘Tis far better that we remain sensible and reserved than to frolic to and fro in our knickers as you Americans are so fond of doing.” He was referring to the multitudinous celebrity sex tapes of failing American actors, but I think his drunken cavil was actually a key insight into European brewing culture. Europeans prefer to drink their beer in large sessions, drinking many pints/liters at a time. In order to accomplish this, the beer produced must be of reasonable ABV. In addition, the tradition of ales and lagers in Europe being of sessionable strength dates back to the days when brewing utilized the parti-gyle system, when different runnings of wort of decreasing strength were used to create beers of moderate alcoholic strength. Because apparently all Americans enjoy frolicking to and fro in our knickers all day long, our brewers not only enjoy complete freedom from tradition but also support from an adventurous, envelope-pushing audience. Thus, American ales can be distinguished from their European brethren by their very floral and citrusy American hop additions, and by their manifest-destiny-like approach to strength and intensity.
The difference between the colors is the various degrees to which the malt was kilned before going through the mashing process in the first steps of beer production. When barley is harvested for beer production, it is steeped in water to germinate the seed, thus starting the barley’s transition from starch to sugar. This is called “malting.” Once the brewer deems the malting process complete, the barley malt is kilned, or cooked, to halt the germination so that the embryo does not eat into the newly created sugars to grow as a plant. This leaves optimal sugar levels in the malt for the yeast to feed on later in the brewing process. The other reason for kilning the malt is to create different flavors in the beer. The palest malts, used in lagers and pale ales, have very light malt character that tastes biscuit and crisp, and in ales, has a slight hint of caramel. Further kilning creates darker colored beers that take on toasty and bready characteristics, then strong toffee and caramel flavors, and finally chocolatey, roasty, coffee-like, burnt, or bitter character. All of these flavors in your beer, as well as the color, are a direct result of the malt kilning process. Thus, the main difference between American Pale, Amber, Brown, and Black Ales is the amount of kilning the malt went through before brewing.
If you’ve tried enough beers, you are probably familiar with what you like and what you don’t, whether you can put words to it or not. When deciding whether to opt for an American Pale, Amber, Brown, or Black Ale, use these guidelines to help you choose something you’ll really enjoy!
American Pale Ale
Usually biscuity and slightly caramelly malt character that takes a definite backseat to fairly aggressive floral and citrusy hops. Pale ales have a definite bitter finish that is sometimes drying on the palate, though less so than American IPAs. The American Pale Ale is a very refreshing style that, because of diminished malt character, drying finish, and cleaner fermentation, seems a little more light bodied and nimble than darker beers. Its balance is definitely tipped more towards bitter hops than sweet malt.
American Amber Ale
Because of further kilning of the malt, Ambers have a more developed malt character with more toasty, bready, and especially caramelly flavors. Amber ales are very similar in hopping to pale ales, with significant citrus and floral aroma and flavor, but the added malt character brings this beer into a better overall balance. If you prefer a beer that is more balanced between sweet and bitter, Amber ales are a style to try!
American Brown Ale
Continuing with the trend, the American Brown ramps up the malt character to another level, adding sweetness and richness with caramel, chocolate, nutty, and toasty notes. Still utilizing floral and citrusy American hops, the American Brown’s balance is nevertheless tipped solidly towards the malt. However, unlike the sweet European counterparts, the American Brown has a more dry and balanced finish.
American Black Ale
This is a newer style that American brewers have toyed with in the last few years, mixing the roasty, bitter, and chocolately malt character of a stout or German Schwarzbier with the floral and citrusy hop character of other American ales. The result is a balanced and interesting brew. The roasty bitterness is balanced by the citrusy hops and tamed by a medium dry finish. American Black Ales are an interesting new addition to the American Ale family!
Beer and Food Pairing
When deciding what to eat with any of these styles, consider the level of malt kilning/color and resultant flavors that accompany the styles. To help you get started, try these tasty pairs:
American Pale Ales
Try with fish, shellfish, grilled chicken, fried chicken, spicy Latin/Cajun style food, and vegetarian dishes.
American Amber Ales
Try with pork, roasted chicken, spicy Latin/Cajun, Indian, and vegetarian dishes.
American Brown Ales
Try with beefy dishes, burgers, and pork or chicken BBQ dishes.
American Black Ales
Try with burgers, charcuterie, and pork BBQ dishes.