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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Full Sail Amber Revisited

I spent a lovely evening last night with Stuart Ramsay, John Harris, and McCormick and Schmick's Harborside chef Joshua Boyd. In advance of the event, the three huddled together and came up with a troika of troikas--Irish whiskey, beer, and food in three flights. For beer fans, flights one and three looked to be the big winners. Keelhauler Scottish Ale led off the night; rather extraordinarily, it was the first Scottish the brewery has ever produced. ("It's the only beer I've worried about in years," said the Reverend John O'Harris, as Ramsay re-dubbed him for St. Paddy's.) The last flight featured my central reason for attending--an 11-year-old Imperial stout. I'll write more on the event later, but let me devote a full post to the beer you've probably forgotten about, the middle flight's Full Sail Amber.

This is a beer dating back to 1989, the early days of the craft brewing renaissance. At its release, people marveled: the heft and sweetness of the body, the amazing sprightliness of the hopping. For people trained to think Henry's Private Reserve was "good beer," FS Amber was off the charts. Yet over the years, as people's experience with good beery expanded, they began to think of the beer as a starter beer, almost a throwaway. Jamie Emmerson once told me that people accused the brewery of changing the recipe. In their memory, Amber was this intense, rich beer--surely Full Sail had slowly watered it down. Of course they hadn't. Whatever adjustments the brewery has made were to accommodate the annual variability in hops and barley so that the beer was always the same.

I have a FS Amber irregularly, but I check in at least once a year. I don't think I've ever had the beer on cask, though, and it was a revelation. It was served with Tyrconnell Single Malt, a whiskey akin to a gentle Speyside, but sweeter in the Irish fashion, and Oyster Isobella and a beet slaw. Amber is a thoroughly America beer, but its lineage is much in keeping with the gentler session ales of the UK. On cask, the malt was smooth and creamy, a perfect base for the slightly sweet, fresh, fruity American hops. Some malts manage to communicate the quality of the fresh, lively springs that feed their distilleries. Cask Amber does, too. I originally frowned when I saw Amber on the menu, but it was an inspired choice--Harris recognized what a perfect complement it was to the whiskey and salad.

As beer fans, we tend to want to push the envelope on flavor sensations. We like to be surprised. But there's great virtue in the elegance of simplicity. To get a beer to harmonize so graciously, to be able to lure the drinker back to the glass quickly for another sample, to be such a perfect companion for food--this is a rare thing. The next time you're down at the Pilsner Room, check to see if they have Amber on cask. Vanquish all expectations and come to the beer again, as if you didn't know anything about it. Order a bit of food. It may knock your socks off, too.


  1. Thanks Jeff, for a great post on how a "regular beer" can be a revelation. I have two thoughts:

    1. I'm very happy to live during a time, and in a place where really good beer is generally available.

    2. I wish more brewers would focus on simple, rather than extreme beers. A great malty session beer is a wonderful thing, and somewhat difficult to pull off.

  2. I remember very vividly thinking how 'extreme' amber was when it came out - it was almost too much. Strange to think about how our tastes evolve so radically that I now think it entirely mild. Interesting to see that many others have the same experience.

  3. Jeff, I completely agree. Craft beer drinkers have fallen into the "more is better" trap. No one seems to care about subtlety and balance any more. (OK, that's an exaggerated blanket statement, but you get my point). FS Amber is a classic and is an incredibly food friendly beer. It’s only in a place of beer abundance like Portland where a beer like this could get overlooked as often as it does. FS Amber and Bridgeport ESB are likely the most underrated beers brewed in Portland. Both are incredible beers with a restrained elegance and subtlety that many of the “new school” craft beers miss. Thanks for reminding people that some of the supermarket staples like FS Amber are still amazing beers.

  4. Nice article.. I have commented on this beer recently.. it is one of my favorite local crafts to date. So great in flavor, and still holds up to much of the latest popular crafts.

  5. I'd have to disagree that the recipe has not changed. This used to be a 6.0% in the 90s and early 2000s. This beer has much more pizzaz. The loss of this great beer is actually one of the most memorable. I will say the same for Black Butte Porter and Obsidian Stout. I do agree that we may be too obsessed with the bigger is better, but these are significant losses. Look at Mammoth DNB or the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, not too big, but still extremely strong.