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Three Creeks Brewing Co.’s latest creation hit the taps recently, the first in a new series of beers the brewery hopes will generate buzz. No, it’s not a cloudy IPA, or a brettanomyces fermented peanut butter ale, or some other exotic concoction. Instead, Three Creeks has opted for nostalgia over exotica with beers focusing on retro styles that hark back to the early days of American craft brewing — their Throwback Series.
Head brewer Zach Beckwith likens the concept to a “liquid time machine,” a chance to reintroduce drinkers to some of the styles that helped shape the industry.
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“It’s kind of this idea of rather than chasing all these trends, we wanted to kind of take a step back and throw it back to where it all began,” he said.
The brewery plans to release four beers in the series this year: an amber ale, American wheat, American pale ale and amber lager. Beckwith aims to brew these beers as authentically as possible.
“We’re using the same malts we would’ve had back in 1995,” he said. “And I even had a brewer from the mid-’90s make our Amber Ale.”
Beckwith is referring to Pat O’Shea, a longtime veteran of the local brewing scene. O’Shea began his career in the ’90s and worked for several breweries including Deschutes Brewery, Crux Fermentation Project, 10 Barrel Brewing, and GoodLife Brewing.
Amber Ale is on tap at the brewpub. Based on the American amber style that was common in brewpubs in the 1980s and ’90s, this version is 5.8 percent alcohol by volume, and, according to the description, its “appeal lies in its balance between crystal malt and old school Northwest hops, pleasing hopheads and malt advocates alike.”
I asked Beckwith if he modeled it after a particular example from the ’90s.
“I’d say more like a platonic ideal,” he said. “I think we all had beers that we remember from that time. It used to be such a standard and has all but disappeared from brewpub menus.”
In those early days, many craft breweries were influenced by English brewing traditions and a typical lineup included a golden ale, a stout and a bitter or pale ale. However, “bitter” was an unpalatable quality for American drinkers, despite such beers not actually having much bitter character. So breweries instead marketed these reddish-colored ales as “ambers.”
Brewers adapted their recipes to the available American ingredients and relied on the use of crystal or caramel malts for color and body. Crystal malts get their name from the kilning or roasting process that creates caramelized sugars that can have a crystallized appearance. These malts add fuller mouthfeel to the finished beer as well as a range of sweet, nutty and caramel flavors.
Early versions of American amber ales were typified by generous (sometimes heavy-handed) sweet and cakey caramel malt flavors and low levels of hops. Stylistically located between a pale and a brown ale, brewers refined the category over time, toning down the malts and increasing the hops to bring balance to the style. Modern versions, when available, tend to resemble brownish pale ales, with noticeable hop character. The focus on hops and IPAs in recent years also led to the creation of hoppy versions known variously as “India red ale” (IRA) or red IPA.
I confess I have a soft spot for the malty version of this classic, dating back to when I was discovering craft beer in the mid-’90s. It was approachable and drinkable, teasing complexities of hops and darker malts without being overly aggressive. Ultimately it was likely this overall lack of complexity that led to its decline in popularity, as drinkers chased hops and novelty, dismissing amber ale as too generic.
With Three Creeks’ Amber Ale, I found a definite roasted malt character with a hefty backing of sweet crystal malt. It’s a bit hoppier than I would have expected, with a slightly woody, spicy character typical of old-school American hops, but it hits most of the hallmarks of the style.
Three Creeks plans to release the next Throwback beer, American Hefeweizen, in May, followed by American Pale Ale in July and Old Special Premium Amber Lager in October. For Beckwith, it’s a fun and challenging exploration of these classic styles, from both a technical perspective and in the eyes of the drinking public.
“We’re doing this intentionally and to re-frame the way people are thinking and talking about beer, to kind of go back to just appreciating beer for beer’s sake,” said Beckwith. “And the simplicity in it, and the balance; and I think in some of these beers, it’s almost a challenge for us to revert our thinking to kind of a simpler time in a way.”
—Jon Abernathy is a local beer blogger and brew aficionado. His column appears every other week in GO