The Malty, Hoppy, Sometimes Seasonal, Always Fantastic Taste of Red Ales

One of the benefits (and, at times, curses) of writing this column is that my name is forever linked with beer. I’m asked to participate in beer judging - of which I’m woefully under-educated to do the job justice - and I’m asked to sample new beers from breweries, and really it’s a VERY hard life I lead as The Guy From The Argus Who Writes About Beer.

Sometimes, though, by nature of being “someone connected to beer,” new opportunities fall into my lap. Often this takes shape as samples from distant states. An old coworker made a special point to save me a handful of Great Lakes beers all the way from luxurious Ohio. Meanwhile, any chance I get to bring home a 12-pack of something rare and foreign - you know, like beers from tropical Omaha - I’m going to take it in the name of journalism, naturally.

A few weeks ago, we received a dozen beers from Florida’s prized brewery, Cigar City Brewing. And while everything has been fantastic - from Hotter than Helles to Jai Alai IPA - my favorite Cigar City beer was their Tocobaga Red Ale.

The difficulty in hammering down a “red ale” style is that it’s typically lumped into a generic grouping of “Amber/Red Ale” - meaning, essentially, any ale lighter than a brown ale. Beer Advocate says that the American Amber/Red Ale category “tends to focus on the malts, but hop character can range from low to high,” which is to say “it lands on nearly every part of the spectrum.” The Beer Judging Certification Program (BJCP) lists red ales as part of 10B: American Amber Ale, saying that even amber ales are referred to as “Red Ales” in some regions. Fat Tire is in this category, yet so is Fulton’s The Libertine - two beers I can’t even begin to compare they seem so different. What’s more, they are not to be confused with Irish Red Ales (think Smithwick’s or Boulevard’s Irish Red Ale), which are sweeter.

Confused? Me too. Think of it this way: if you’ve ever had Odell’s Red Ale or Grand Teton Brewing’s Pursuit of Hoppiness, you’ve had the style of red ale I’m crazy about, pairing the maltiness of a winter German lager with an IPA level of hops. It’s the best of both worlds, in my opinion. Caramel. Hops. All contained in a beautiful red brew.

My wife and I have been spoiled over the last two weeks, thanks to my recent trip to Grand Teton Brewing. In addition to a new growler and a handful of $50 credit card bills, I also came face to face with a clearance sale of last season’s Pursuit of Hoppiness, a beer that typically runs $10 a four-pack marked down to the cool summer price of $3.99.

So what do you think we did? We bought an entire case.

This is significant for two reasons. First, red ales are hoppy beers. And as we’ve learned in the past, the flavor of hops is the first to go in a beer as it ages. There’s a reason you don’t see beer nerds scrambling to store and age each year’s batch of Surly Wet or Bell’s Hopslam - it’s because these are wet and dry-hopped for maximum freshness and hop flavor, and that hop flavor begins disappearing as soon as it hits the bottle.

The breweries know this, and they have a reputation to keep intact, which gives them a major incentive to have as much of their seasonal beers, like Pursuit of Hoppiness, consumed ASAP. We, of course, are happy to oblige.

Second, whether it’s because of the hops or simply because breweries believe high-malt/high-hop beers are meant to be consumed when it’s colder, you’re hard pressed to find great red ales during the summer. Odell’s Red Ale and Grand Teton’s Pursuit land in spring, while New Belgium releases it’s red ale - Red Hoptober - in, fittingly, October. If you’re looking for year-round red ales, you’re best bet is either North Coast’s Red Seal or, if you can find it, Summit’s Horizon Red Ale. Red Seal is found everywhere in Sioux Falls - it’s the best year-round red you can find - but Horizon is often only found in samplers or in Summit territory around Minneapolis.

You’re not always going to have a friend delivering red ales from Florida, and you’re probably never going to wander into a brewery selling one of your favorite red ales at less than half-price. It’s because of this that you should appreciate red ales while they’re still around - go grab a six-pack of Red Seal right now! - and celebrate when they show up on shelves again.

And if you find any red ales that you think are fantastic, send them my way. Don’t forget - I’m that beer guy. The one whose name is always linked with “beer.”