Red Ale, also known as Amber Ale, originated with California brewers, and many commercial versions are still brewed here. While the style highlights a balance of hops and malt, there is great variation in different breweries’ interpretations of that balance. Some beers present a predominant caramel malt sweetness with hop bitterness and flavor in the background, while others significantly focus on hops and drink more like a darker-colored West Coast IPA.
I sampled five California-brewed examples and ranked them by my personal enjoyment, ending with the finest example I found. Based on the hefty bitterness and relatively high alcohol levels for the style, most of these would be categorized as Imperial Red Ales. While I don’t always prefer beers with higher alcohol levels, in this case, my rankings fell in order by the strength of the brews.
Evil Twin, Heretic Brewing, Fairfield, 6.8 percent ABV
Although marketed as a Red Ale, Evil Twin pours a deep brown in color with a low beige head. Pungent, catty hops dominate the aroma, and the flavor highlights dank hop bitterness, balanced by a dark-chocolate malt backbone. The interplay between the hops and malt results in an earthy flavor – while caramel malts in Red Ales tend to produce some sweetness, Evil Twin is malty without coming across as sweet. The beer is very well carbonated, and the bubbles accentuate a spicy Columbus hop flavor that lingers through the finish.
Red Rocket Ale, Bear Republic Brewing, Healdsburg, 6.8 percent ABV
Bear Republic describes Red Rocket as a “bastardized Scottish-style Red Ale.” The malt dominance certainly reflects the brew’s Scottish heritage, while the bitterness levels represent the West Coast of the U.S. Mahogany brown in color with a medium tan head, the aroma highlights a graham-cracker sweetness. However, the first sip reveals a firm, spicy bitterness that persists through the finish. Medium full-bodied, with just a hint of roast on the palate, Red Rocket does not offer much hop flavor despite the pronounced bitterness.
Hop Head Red, Green Flash Brewing, San Diego, 7 percent ABV
Ruby red with a full beige head, the aroma of Hop Head Red showcases a balance of orange zest from Amarillo hops with a caramel candy malt – the blend actually reminds me of orange Brach’s Caramel Royals candy (in a good way). The medium-bodied beer features a delicious juicy citrus hop flavor in balance with a toasty caramel sweetness. With moderate bitterness from start to finish, Hop Head Red drinks like an excellent fruity IPA.
McCarthy’s Bane, Knee Deep Brewing, Auburn, 8 percent ABV
With a humorous mock-Soviet label for its “red” beer, Knee Deep has produced a fine Imperial Red Ale. The beer pours deep copper in color with a fluffy off-white head, and the complex aroma includes citrusy hops, spicy rye notes and a hard-candy sweetness. On the palate, the mouthfeel is velvety and the moderate bitterness and light caramel malt provide a backdrop to feature a pronounced hops flavor. The pleasant grapefruit twang of the hops is present from the first sip through the finish.
Shark Attack, Port Brewing, San Diego, 9 percent ABV
Shark Attack is deep ruby red in color, with a huge rocky beige head and a resinous, piney aroma backed by a hint of malt sweetness. Surprisingly smooth for its strength, the flavor features a complex interplay of smooth bitterness, crystal malt sweetness and a crisp citrus hop flavor, all highlighted by high carbonation. While there is a moderate alcohol bite, Shark Attack is one of the finest Imperial Red Ales available.
Derek Wolfgram is chief communications officer for the Silicon Valley Sudzers Homebrew Club, which meets the first Friday of each month at a home in Los Altos Hills and welcomes both new and experienced beer enthusiasts. For more information, visit sudzers.org.