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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

What's in a Name?

I picked up a couple bottles of Silver Moon's beers this week (reviews to come), one of which is brewed in the dreaded "amber" style. I will confess to a certain weariness as I poured it out, because I'm almost never pleased with ambers. They seem like a marketing niche rather than a style, which is sort of how I remember them emerging in the 80s and early 90s. Breweries needed something to slot in between pale ales and browns, so they brewed these worty-sweet copper ales and dubbed them "ambers."

Without tipping my hand too much about Silver Moon, I'll say that the first inhalation of its gentle aroma suggested "best bitter," which my palate confirmed. There's not a whole lot of difference between best bitters and ambers, really. The former is a bit smaller than the latter (around 4.2%, compared to, say 5.2%), a little less dark, and a little thinner of body. But these are differences of degree, not type. The major distinction is hopping--with an amber you expect citrusy Northwest hops, and in a best bitter the spicier hops of England.

When I was studying Hindi, one of my teachers had a subtle way of describing native fluency. He spoke nearly flawless English (way better than my Hindi), but there were things he just couldn't get straight. He used the example of "mug" and "jug." They were both liquid containers, and they sounded the same. It took him forever to finally nail down the difference. Beer styles are a bit like that. On the one hand, they have such similarity that on a philosophical level, you almost can't argue a difference. Ambers and best bitters are, existentially speaking, roughly the same. On the other, there's something quit distinct, something worth noting.

In the US, when I encounter a best bitter (or even an ordinary bitter), I regard it as a statement of intention. The brewer knows s/he's selling something that will confuse the average consumer--bitters, especially now, are not bitter. Adding the "best" doesn't help clarify things for patrons who are unaware of the range of English bitters. American best bitters designed for people who can appreciate craft and subtlety. It is almost an axiom that they won't sell.

Ambers, on the other hand, are beers everyone can get their brains around. Look, it's amber-colored. No problem. Ambers seem to have been aimed at people for whom color is about as much information as they need. They are approachable, and their sweetness is enhanced by Cascade hopping, which make them a bit like lemonade. Add some body and you've got a crowd-pleaser, if not a great beer.

For me, "best bitter" implies a carefully articulated beer, with wonderfully distinct (if understated) notes of malt sweetness and hop flavor. "Amber," on the other hand, suggests an indistinct beer of little character--something inoffensive, but without interest.

Clearly, all of this is semantics. I was reminded of how much solidity I had put into the terms, though, when I tippled Silver Moon's Amber last night. Moral: don't judge a beer by its name. Consider me edumacated.

[Update. I forgot to mention one other wrinkle to this rumination: Anheuser-Busch's latest release, American Ale. (It's going to be a frosty cold day in hell before InBud releases a Belgian ale in the US market.) It is ... you guessed it, an amber ale. Now, I don't mean to instantly contradict the moral to my own blog post, but this doesn't bode well, does it? I mean, a Bud ale with 5.2% alcohol and 25-28 IBU. That sounds suspiciously like an "indistinct beer of little character--something inoffensive, but without interest." But let's not get ahead of ourselves. You never know, have to keep your mind open, pick your cliche. All I know is that the Belgians run the show now, so maybe (twist of the knife) it will finally have a little character.

Jon's sitting on a promo package (how does he get those damn things while I pay good money for my beer?), so we'll await his verdict with interest.]


  1. Your Ed-U-mication missed something .... ;-}

    When the style tag "AMBER" came into existence, it really grated on my nerves. Why the hell couldn't we put a beer style into a classic style name or at least come up with something more witty than AMBER!?

    AMBER! I was waiting for the brewing world to start naming beers by the their color! It's bad enough a lot of incompetent beer servers identify different beers by color... "That beer is Amber and THAT beer is dark..."

    I always want to ask... "What exactly does AMBER and DARK taste like? A Pale ale or a Porter???"

    Anyway, that's an article I'm working on for the future!

    Back to AMBERS!

    Jeff you seem to have missed the most obvious beer style that closely resembles an AMBER.... ESB!

    Good ol' Extra Special Bitter (ESB)! Fuller's ESB is a nice British example, but plenty exists in England and in America with the exception of the sell out Redhook ESB which has been bastardized into something unrecognizable!

    Almost every flavor profile of an ESB matches the AMBER profile with the exception of Hop type and Hop flavor! I really can't believe we needed to create a NEW Beer style based on HOP flavor! Jeff did note the hop difference....Right before the abstract Hindi lesson..

    When looking up beer style profiles, one will note the following style names:

    American Pale
    American Amber
    American Brown

    Still.... why AMBER? Why not American ESB? The ESB even has a closer alcohol content.

    I can hardly wait till we start naming NEW American Belgian styles.... A Wit could become American Belgian ZIMA, A nice Belgian with a Green Forresty yeast flavors may become American Green Belgian.... and! A nice Belgian Lambic or Wild yeast cheesy noted beer might become American Blue Cheese ales.... :-O

    This is why I always push for public education of beer knowledge and style knowledge... SO we don't end up with styles named AMBER, Pink, Orange, Beige, Peacock Purple or some other ridiculous names....

  2. Ambers really fall between ESBs and best bitters--the top end of the best bitter range and the bottom end of the ESB range create the range for American ambers in terms of gravity and hop bitterness. But because ESBs are so associated with aggressive hopping, I do think you're stepping beyond differences of degree. This is particularly the case if you compare the most well-known ESB--Fuller's--to American ambers. Fuller's is vividly hoppy, far more so than American ambers.

  3. DW: I'll start by saying that the usage of 'Amber' as a style grates on my nerves, too, but...

    'I was waiting for the brewing world to start naming beers by the their color!'

    Hmm... like Pale Ale? Brown Ale? Black Beer? Lots of history behind these, of course. So what's so offensive about 'Amber' Ale? Perhaps its just that most examples of the style are just so darned boring.

  4. Lets look at the BJCP Beer Style Guild lines for the fun of it... ;-}

    British ESB

    Vital Statistics:
    OG: 1.048 – 1.060
    FG: 1.010 – 1.016
    IBUs: 30 – 50
    SRM: 6 – 18
    ABV: 4.6 – 6.2%

    AMerican Amber

    Vital Statistics:
    OG: 1.045 – 1.060
    FG: 1.010 – 1.015
    IBUs: 25 – 40
    SRM: 10 – 17
    ABV: 4.5 – 6.2%

    Best Bitter

    Vital Statistics:
    OG: 1.040 – 1.048
    FG: 1.008 – 1.012
    IBUs: 25 – 40
    SRM: 5 – 16
    ABV: 3.8 – 4.6%

    It appears British ESB's can be a little higher in IBU's, The ABV is about exact and color about the same. Both are maltier than a BEst Bitter too. Three out of Four ain't bad as a close comparison.

    Don't know how far I'd quibble over a max IBU's of 40 vs 50 with low ends of 25 & 30 IBU's. I'd say that's a fairly comparable product.

  5. Yikes!

    Dude! You got a spammer!

  6. What about Fischer Amber?

    I didn't like it when I tired it many years ago but it seems liek the styles been around a long time, no?

  7. M Wort, you are a funny guy. But I stand by my guns! Isn't it called something else in French?

  8. It may be something else in France... just saying that calling a beer amber has been done for at least 20 yrs.


  9. Who's Monsieur Wort?

    Fischer Amber is a lager... Different planet, so to speak... ;-}

  10. Jeff: Re that A-B ambermerican ale promo package I got: I'm saving the second bottle to share with you after you get back from Denver...which may or may not be a blandishment. Also, in my next life, I am determined to be able to truthfully use the line "when I was studying Hindi..."
    kull wahad!