by The Malt Monk
It’s long past time that North American red ale be identified and recognized as a distinct domestic beer style. Red ale has its roots in the Old World as the venerable Irish red ale, among others, which were malt forward, lightly sweet, toasty, modestly hopped medium-bodied reddish-amber ales. Some commercial examples of this style are Smithwick’s Irish Ale, Kilkenny Irish Beer, Beamish Red Ale, and Caffrey’s Irish Ale. When traditional red ale styles were revived and interpreted by North American microbrewers and artisanal brewers in decades past, they took on a whole new genre-bending attitude and flavour profile. Unfortunately, the official and near-official beer industry style-classification committees have not made North American red ales or Canadian Rousse a district category (lumping them in with the “amber ale” catch-all classification), even though crafters have distinguished it enough through trial and innovation to be its own district style.
The North American craft/microbrewing industry first took interest in red ales when they tried to improve on Irish and UK amber ales in colour, body and flavour. The North American red ale style is very popular in Quebec, and many craft brewers there produce a “rousse” (red) ale. The Quebec style is generally malty with a touch of caramel in the front, but crisp and dry in the finish with a decent hop bite at the end. It’s like a pale ale, but with a little more caramel and toastiness in the profile. The style is so popular in La Belle Province that most independent commercial brewers there offer a rousse. If you’re an ale-head, and pale ale is your go-to session beer, then you’ll find rousse is a pleasant change of pace.
The “rousse” style was picked up by microbrewers outside Quebec who had traveled there and tasted this unique Quebec quaffing ale. It is now not uncommon to see microbrewers producing rousse-like red ales outside Quebec. Generally, red ales brewed outside Quebec tend to have a slightly sturdier body and are a bit heavier in character. Also brewers are experimenting with specialty grains like rye, buckwheat and spelt in their red ale renditions. These specialty grains add a new dimension to the rousse style and improve on its original profile.
The “red” in Quebec rousse and North American micro red ales is generally the result of using caramalt (malt that is caramelized and has reddish melanoidins), which imparts the malty caramel flavours, as well as giving a distinctive reddish-copper colour. However, the use of malted rye and buckwheat really add a spicy dryness to the finish. These specialty grains have a natural affinity for the red ale style, so it’s no surprise that some of the best red ales and imperial red ales I’ve tasted were made with more than 30 percent malted rye.
On the whole, North American reds and Quebec rousse are great quaffing ales – flavourful with caramel toasty accents but crisp in finish and fuller bodied, while light enough to be a good quencher or sessioner. The flavour profile is very flexible and lends itself to accompanying a wide variety of foods. From personal experience, I can state that red ale is as at home with spicy Thai or Mexican cuisine as it is with homemade comfort foods.
BrewDog 5 A.M. Saint – Special order though Ontario agents and at better craft-beer venues.
5 A.M. Saint is said to be the “holy grail of red ales.” From my tasting perspective, that isn’t an exaggeration. It pours a hazed amber-red in the glass with a three-finger tight sand-coloured cap. Aroma is subtle but complex: layered malts and layered hopping, the result of careful mashing and multiple dry-hopping stages – simply awesome nose to this. Medium-bodied with a rounded character. Flavour has a rich complexity of malts in front that is almost perfectly balanced with a layered mix of hop varieties. You get biscuit, toast, bready, sweet dough, toffee, malt meeting pine, citrus, floral, herbal woody hopping. Clean and distinctive, with a demure complexity. Crafted red ale at its best.
McAuslin Griffon Rousse – LCBO# 613596 and at the Beer Store
Reddish-brown coloured ale with a smallish cap. Light clean nose, hints of caramel malts with some walnut and wet hemp tones. A clean drinking ale with a medium-light body, some sweet bread and nutty decrements, hops are spicy-bitter in good balance, clean dry finish with a light bitter bite at the end. Good session ale with malty profile and all natural ingredients. Very popular in Quebec.
Lake of Bays Rousse – LCBO # 242180 and at the Beer Store
Decants a dark copper with reddish tones. Ample cap laces the glass. Aroma reveals a good mix of malts and hop varieties. Roasty-toasty-toffee, some earthiness, pine and fruits. Flavour is equally easy to define – a pleasant amalgam of red and pale malts with enough hop balance to keep it interesting. Crisp finish with roasty-toasty malt tones eclipsed by an increasing bittering. A very drinkable brew that has depth without being complex – a good rendition of the Quebec original “rousse” style.
Wellington Rye-it – rotating seasonal at Wellington County Brewery store or local pubs
Pours a rich copper-red with a decent one-finger cap in the glass. Aroma is pleasant – caramalt over some citrus and pine notes. Medium-bodied, gritty mouthfeel, malty but spicy-dry character. Flavour starts with rich caramalt semi-sweet maltiness in the front, then is balanced with a spicy-piney bitterness; goes dry in the finish with a resinous bittering. A great flavour amalgam of caramel malts and dry spicy rye in the finish, wonderful choice of complimentary hops. This is an easy-drinking rye red ale with lots of sessioning potential. I wish Wellington made it all year round.
Rogue Northwestern ale – Seasonally at the LCBO and at craft beer emporiums
An award-winning red ale from an established US microbrewer, Northwestern is reddish-brown in the glass with an off-white cap. In the aroma you get citrus-earthy-pine-hop tones mingling with caramel malt with some toasty notes – some nice complexity here. The flavour profile’s front side is dominated by malts – roasty, toasty, nutty, some caramel/toffee – then the hops appear suddenly to add balance and some complexity. Long wet clean finish that leaves a roasty-bitter taste. Sandy mouthfeel, medium body. Very nicely constructed ale, lots going on here, like a micro red ale–IPA mutation with west coast dry hopping thrown in the mix. Good quaffer. Grab some if it appears on the LCBO shelves this year.
Malt Monk’s Pick of the Month
Sawdust City Brewing’s Long Dark Voyage To Uranus –
New kids on the block, Sawdust City Brewing in Gravenhurst have had a couple of winners right out of the gate. Their Lone Pine IPA is great, they have an Altbier to die for that is as good as any imports, and they offer this superb Imperial Russian stout. It seems that comic double-entendre names are all the rage with unconventional brewers these days, thus we see this offering named “Long Dark Voyage To Uranus” (LDVTU). Don’t let the name put you off, this is one of the better microbrewed Imperial stouts I’ve tasted. LDVTU pours blacker than a tax collector’s heart, with a two-finger tight-pored mocha-coloured cap, very soft carbonation, and a silken mouthfeel. Big coffee/roast tones in the aroma as well as some dark fruits, a touch of vanilla, and some wet hay. Big hefty body and robust character, roasty-coffee-fruity flavours in front with a nice hop bite and a long drying finish. A really satisfying drink. Until they get bottling in full production, their beers will only show in this market on tap at better craft beer venues. Hope they get this in bottles soon.
The Malt Monk is the alter ego of D.R. Hammond, a passionate supporter of craft beer culture. He invites readers to join in the dialogue at http://maltmonksbeerblog.wordpress.com/