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Red Beer

by Sara Doersam

In recent years red beers have flooded the beer market. Some are targeting the craft beer market while others are squarely aimed at the mass beer drinkers market. Historically red beer styles have been somewhat obscure, but they are now making their mark on the American craft beer culture. The increasing awareness and growing sophistication of the American beer aficionado has catapulted the reds into the limelight. The color red is both a powerful and inviting visual stimulator and as a beer color helps sell the product.

A brewing renaissance, kicked started by the legalization of homebrewing in 1976, is underway. It is gaining momentum at ever increasing rates with more Americans acquiring an appreciation for fine flavored beer on a daily basis. The number of microbreweries, brewpubs, and regional specialty breweries has grown from 19 in 1985 to 1,086 by the end of 1996. The megabrewers, regional brewers and small brewers have scrambled to market red beer in recent years, and now there is a myriad of red beers on retail shelves.

Red in the name of a beer is not enough to qualify a beer in the red style category. For example, the only thing red about Red Dog beer from Miller's Plank Road Brewery is the dog on the label. In all other aspects it is the same old run-of-the-mill American light lager like most national brands. Another example of a beer that has nothing red about it other than its name or label is Red Stripe lager from Jamaica.

Distinguishing characteristics in beer, whether a German pilsner, English bitter or American pale ale, begin in the brewing process. Using specific types of specialty malts in the mash gives red or amber beers their distinctive color. Primarily caramel or roasted malts render the reddish hues as well as unique flavors. Unfortunately there are some unscrupulous breweries that add red coloring to their beer to achieve the desired color, then dub it a red beer.

Red beers come in the form of both ales and lagers. Let's examine briefly what distinguishes an ale from a lager. After beer has been brewed and it enters its fermentation stage, the brewer "pitches" yeast which converts sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol. The type of yeast and fermentation temperature determines whether a beer is an ale or a lager.

Ales are brewed with top-fermenting yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) at warmer temperatures for a short duration. Lagers are brewed with bottom-fermenting yeast (Saccharomyces uvarum) at cooler temperatures for a longer duration. Originally, all beers were ales, but with the advent of refrigeration and the better understanding of yeast, lager beer was developed and quickly grew in popularity.

American red lagers and ales are not recognized beer styles but rather are styles created by slick beer marketers trying to appeal to novice beer drinkers. Nevertheless, brewed with the appropriate malts to achieve a reddish color and characteristic flavor, they are closely akin to American amber lagers and ales, which are recognized styles. Red beer styles originating in other countries include the red beers of Belgium, Germany's Vienna lagers, and Irish red ales.

Red and amber lagers available in the U.S
Killian's Red was one of the early reds on the American beer scene. First brewed in 1864 as Ruby Ale in Enniscorthy, Ireland, it was dubbed Killian when in 1956 the brewery closed and George Killian Lett licensed his beer to be brewed by Pelforth in France and Adolph Coors Co. in Golden, Colorado.

Although Coors' version of Killian Red was first brewed as an ale, Coors now uses a lager yeast to make it lighter bodied to appeal to America's mass market. It bears a malt accent and is fermented at warmer temperatures to give it a hint of ale character. Slow roasted caramel malt gives Killian Red its color. Despite garnering a silver medal in the amber lager category at the 1996 Great American Beer Festival, it does not stand up well to today's competition.

Frederick Brewing Co., Frederick, Maryland, brews in its family of Blue Ridge beers a fine amber lager, which is a classic, clean, Vienna-style beer. Medium copper in color, with a healthy hop flavor, it offers a nice body and a bit of malt sweetness from the crystal malt, with a low, soft bitterness. Perhaps a bit less of the slightly toasted note seen in the style from some other brewers, but very well done. It earned a bronze medal in the Vienna lager category at the 1996 World Beer Cup competition.

Leinenkugel's Red Lager, brewed by Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co., Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, makes legitimate claim as a family-operated business, but is owned by Miller Brewing Co. One of the better beers from under the umbrella of a megabrewery, it is brewed with five specialty roast barley malts and two varieties of hops.

Exhibiting a deep copper color, this lager has a nice lingering head and a soft hop aroma accented with a gentle maltiness. The flavor is hearty with a nicely balanced hop flavor that carries through to the end. The body is medium to full, but served too cold (below 50 degrees Farenheit) both the flavor and head are diminished. Leine's Red beat out Frederick's Blue Ridge Amber Lager for the gold at the 1996 World Beer Cup.

The immigration of German brewers to Mexico as well as Central and South America in the 1800's and 1900's inspired true-to-style Vienna lagers like Negra Modelo from Groupo Modelo in Mexico City. It offers a pleasing creamy, malty character and goes down remarkably smooth. Dark auburn in color, it is especially palatable with food.

Red Wolf Lager, brewed by Anheuser-Busch, St. Louis, has a deep pale to brownish color. Where's the red? It has little head retention and only a faint, dry-toasted aroma. Its low flavor profile has a hint of sweet malt and a dry over-toasted barley flavor that hangs on the palate -- another boring American lager. Although it was the bronze medal winner in the American amber lager category at the 1996 World Beer Cup, this wolf has no bite.

Red and amber ales available in the U.S.

St. Rogue Red, from Rogue Ales Brewery, Newport, Oregon, is an adventurous beer with, like all Rogue Ales, assertive hop character. Deep red in color, it has a pronounced caramel and citrus fruit nose. It has a sweet caramel flavor which is quickly dominated by fruit and hop bitterness. A saintly example of an American amber ale.

Grolsch Amber Ale is the newest U.S. offering from Grolsch Breweries of The Netherlands. Described by the brewery as an altbier (a German style ale), this amber ale features a lightly malty flavor with a hop finish derived from American and German hops. It serves as a good training wheels beer for those trying to crossover from light lagers to fuller flavored beers. It is brewed with amber and roasted malt as well as wheat. All Grolsch ales are cold conditioned like lagers with krauesen added for a smoother, less estery and yeasty character.

McTarnahan's Amber Ale from Portland (Oregon) Brewing Co. is a full-bodied rich amber beer that gets its character from roasted caramel malt, which is balanced by a double addition of Cascade hops for robust bitterness and a floral, sprucy aroma. It walked away with the Bronze medal in the American amber ale category at the 1996 World Beer Cup.

Dixie Crimson Voodoo Ale, brewed by Dixie Brewing Co. in New Orleans, Louisiana, is a rather uninspiring red ale with a grainy malt nose and flavor. It has a medium body but ends dry and bitter with little hop flavor before the finish.

Notably its sibling Blackened Dixie Voodoo Lager gained a measure of notoriety when it was introduced in 1992. It was banned in a number of local markets because of its images on the label. Opponents said they were tied to sorcery, witchcraft and other voodoo symbols. The opposition quickly died down but couldn't have given the fledgling beer better publicity.

Boont is a traditional dialect in Boonville, California, and it seemed like the perfect moniker for Anderson Valley Brewing Company's quirky Boont Amber Ale. The sweetness of crystal malt and the sourness from a 16-hour mash (usually the mash takes around two hours) combine to give it an unusual, yet refreshing and tangy flavor. The caramel malt gives it a hazy pale amber color with citrusy aromas and a lingering hop finish. It earned the bronze medal in the American amber ale category at the 1995 Great American Beer Festival.

Remember those Belgian red beers I mentioned? Here's the definitive example along with a new age Belgian red.

The "Burgundies of Belgium," Rodenbach and Rodenbach Grand Cru, are world classic Belgian red ales that are available in some specialty beer stores in the U.S. The novice beer drinker may think that Rodenbach beers are undrinkable given their tart, intentionally sour taste and complex palate. This sour style of West Flanders derives its burgundy color from Vienna and caramel malts and the untreated Slovakian oak maturation vessels used to age them.

The beer simply called Rodenbach is made by the classic old method of blending "young" and "old" brews. The Grand Cru is the mature unblended beer, which is aged from 18 months to more than two years. The regular Rodenbach is complex and refreshing, with winey characteristics and oakiness. The Grand Cru has a bigger profile, darker color and a smoother texture. For its 150th anniversary the brewery made a third Rodenbach dubbed Alexander Rodenbach, after its founder. It is a sweeter version that blends some of the Grand Cru with cherry essence.

Opening its doors in 1993, New Glarus Brewing Co., New Glarus, Wisconsin, is a relative newcomer to the U.S. craft brew industry. Its Belgian Red Wisconsin Cherry ale is brewed with Wisconsin cherries and aged in oak for that marriage of wine and beer. It is refreshing and complex with subtle sourness and cherries in the flavor. It garnered two recent awards -- a gold medal in the fruit beer category at the 1996 Great American Beer Festival and a silver in the same category at the 1996 World Beer Cup.

Drinking in moderation is the order of the day. With the number of beer connoisseurs growing in record proportions, more consumers are making their beer drinking experience a quality instead of quantity adventure. So before you grab that Killian's Red or Red Wolf off your grocer's shelf, consider seeking out some of the other beers I've described here. 'Tis better to savor the flavor than slam the suds.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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