Last week, I conducted a blind tasting with 22 Savannahians and asked them to choose their favorite from among three new Amber Ales: Bell's Brewery Amber from Michigan, Full Sail Amber of Oregon, and Colorado's New Belgium Brewing Co. Fat Tire.
Before we get to the results, let's get the geekiness out of the way:
Amber Ale, as defined by the American Brewers Association:
"American amber is noteworthy for its relatively even balance between malt and hop expression.... American amber is also distinguished from its American pale ale parent by its fuller body and mouthfeel. Much of this comes from the liberal use of crystal malt, which not only contributes a pronounced caramelly sweetness, but also the style's signature red color. That same impartiality also applies to hops... [C]itrusy Northwest hops like Cascades are most common."
The key word is "balance," and that's what many of the tasters noted. Even those who were more attuned to wine picked out the evenness between malt and hops (the sweet and bitter components). That hallmark of Amber Ale -- and its typically lower alcohol level of less than 6 percent -- makes it a perfect session beer.
About the beers
Full Sail is sometimes credited with having founded the style (though I'm sure some breweries dissent). Still, the style description is virtually identical to Full Sail Amber. At 6 percent ABV, it was the highest in alcohol of all the trio -- and also exhibited the most restraint in style. This gentle nature seems to typify Northwestern brews -- and that's not a bad thing. It's a regional characteristic that makes the big world of craft beer go round and round.
Bell's Amber just hit store shelves last week and had virtually no recognition among the testers -- with the exception of one guy who had spent time in Michigan. It is the flagship brew Bell's Brewery -- whose own tasting notes define it as having a "slightly sweet flavor that is balanced by a melange of American hops. The result is a deep copper color and rich flavor."
Full Sail poured darker and flaunted a creamy, thick head that held its own. Still, Bell's began raising eyebrows early in the evening -- a hint that this newcomer might just take honors. It was the second highest in ABV at 5.8 percent.
New Belgium Brewing's Fat Tire, for me, is the Coors of this generation. In my youth, Coors was only available west of the Mississippi. It was a treat to taste the Rocky Mountain nectar. Fat Tire had a similar cult-like following on the East Coast. The craving was put to rest just a few weeks ago when it became accessible in Georgia -- and it stands tall in its 22-ounce bottle!
Named in honor of the founder's bike trip through Belgium, Fat Tire Amber Ale marks a turning point in the young electrical engineer's home brewing. Upon his return, Jeff Lebesch created Fat Tire and Abbey Belgian Ale, (assuming Abbey would be his big gun).
But Fat Tire won fans with its sense of balance: toasty, biscuit-like malt flavors paired hand in hand with hoppy freshness. It was our lowest alcohol beer at 5.2 percent and, even tough it piqued curiosity on first taste it got beat up by the gentler style Ambers.
Oh, and tasters Elizabeth and Kathy wanted me to credit B. Matthew's Chef Jeffrey Crumpton for creating three incredible small plates to go with each beer. Crumpton recently captured "Best Chef' in CS's reader poll -- and it's obvious why he took the title.
Of 22 ballots cast, 4 chose Fat Tire as their favorite Amber; 2 preferred Full Sail and the majority chose Bell's Amber as their favorite of the trio. Overwhelmingly, the reasoning was Bell's balanced presentation of flavors, its body and imminent drinkability.
Two of the 4 Fat Tire fans were self-described devotees to the beer; the other two were converts who preferred the bolder style presented by the Colorado brewer.
The 2 voters who preferred Full Sail admitted it was long-neck to long-neck as their taste buds tried to put distance between the two. In the end, it was Full Sail's overall style that they preferred.
All of the beers are available in Georgia and in most local package shops.
Email Tim at email@example.com