Seeing Red (Ale, that is)
A few years back, everybody and his brother were brewing up red ales and naming them after some furry woodland critter, hoping to make a fast buck in the microbrew biz. Most of the brews went skulking back into the forest after the boom faded, and that’s probably a good thing, because many of them were pretty insipid. The style has more potential than demonstrated by this superficial craze.
Old World Reds
The Sumerians called their red beer kas-si. That’s right, red beer is 5,000 years old. Of course, little evidence exists to show what such a beer would have been like. Linguistic evidence for grain kilns indicates that malt was probably being toasted, resulting in a beer with characteristics of more modern brews. Hops are not mentioned in connection with Sumeria but were apparently known in Babylon a little later. Coriander, wormwood, and a full spice cabinet of other Old World seasonings were available, although then, as now, brewers tended not to give away their best tricks in their recipes. We’re left guessing.
An Irish poem by Cano in the eighth or ninth century celebrates more than a dozen ales of the day: “About the land of the Cruithni, about Gergin; Red ales, like wine are freely drank,” and “The red ale of Dorind.” Cano was more a poet than a brewer, so again, no details.
“Red” was an encompassing term used throughout the Middle Ages and later to indicate the whole sweep of brown-colored beers, as distinguished from white (usually wheat) beers. White beer was the more avant-garde of the two, adopting hops at an early date. Red beer brewers clung to the gruit herb tradition a couple of centuries longer.
The term lay fallow for a few centuries except in conservative backwaters like Belgium, where the term has long applied to a class of sour beers from the Flanders region. I wrote about this style in All About Beer Magazine a few issues back.
It’s All About Malt
The term appeared in America about 1990, as brewers searched for a way to find descriptors for beers that were neither intimidating nor linked to specific historical traditions. Although “red ale” may be a little vague to constitute a proper style, here’s the basics:
— Deep amber to ruby color (14 to 20 degrees SRM), hopefully with a reddish tinge
— Profound maltiness, without too much toast or roast
— Hop rate that counteracts, but does not overwhelm the malt
— Light to moderate hop aroma
— Gravity between 1045 and 1060 (4.5 to 5.5 percent alcohol by volume)
Red ale is basically a beefy session beer, so good drinkability is important. The key to this is using hops in a way that is assertive without being tiring, building a malt that’s profound but not cloying. As always, stick with high-quality aroma or dual-purpose hops. Bitterness in the range of 25 to 35 IBUs is probably about right, although it can go as high as 50 or more if you have the malt to balance it. The emphasis should be on bitterness rather than aroma, although some aroma is a good thing. You just don’t want it smelling like a fresh-cut grapefruit; malt aroma should have the upper hand.
This style is all about malt, and to make it really sing, we’ll layer the flavors by blending a number of different malt types into the grist. We’ll begin with a pale ale base, and start heaping it on: Munich, aromatic, two kinds of crystal, and finally, a little dollop of black malt to deepen the color and add a reddish cast. We’re leaving out the amber- to brown-colored malts, as these offer up lots of toasty flavors that can turn this into a brown ale. We’re also going light on the crystal, as it can tend to steer a beer into the land of the cloying.
To give it a nice American a flavor, we’re bittering it with Liberty hops, aromatized with a bit of Mt. Hood.
For fermenting, I’m recommending a cold-tolerant alt bier yeast so the beer can be cold-conditioned for a really smooth, round flavor. You can use whatever ale yeast you like, or even lager yeast. In any case, keep the fermentation temperature on the low end of what the yeast will tolerate, and allow a cold-conditioning period of four to six weeks.
Because this style comes awfully close to an English ESB, a low carbonation level will highlight its subtleties. By the same token, it’s a really fine candidate for serving as a draft real ale.
Just be sure to name it after some feisty yet secretive woodland creature.
Randy Mosher is a freelance branding and packaging consultant, lecturer, and author of The Brewers Companion and the soon-to-be-published Radical Brewing.