Beer Tasting: Hell Creek Amber Ale

20161119_134231My Hell Creek Amber Ale–a first attempt at incorporating wild hops into a recipe–just kicked. Thankfully, I got a tasting in before the keg was totally drained.

  • The Basics
    • Original gravity = 1.060; final gravity = 1.014; abv = 6.1%; estimated IBU = 33
  • Aroma
    • Malty, with a honey-sweet background.
  • Appearance
    • A deep amber color, with a thin ivory head that has decent persistance. The beer dropped fairly clear after a few weeks in the keg.
  • Flavor
    • Malt-forward, with a toasty and biscuity character. Hop flavor is pretty clean, with moderate bitterness.
  • Mouthfeel
    • The hop finish is a touch harsh, perhaps a little out of balance, so I might drop the bittering just a touch next time, or go with a “cleaner” bittering hop.
  • Would I brew this again?
    • Yes! This is a decent, middle of the road amber ale, and has been popular with guests to the house. I might up the biscuit malt a touch, and swap out the Special B with some crystal 120 (per the original recipe). I don’t pick up much in the way of hop character, so would probably add a bit more on the whirlpool if possible.
  • Overall: 
    • 6/10

Hell Creek Amber Ale

bottleGimmick beers can be a fun way to liven up familiar styles, especially when there is a good pun involved. A friend recently located some wild (or more likely, feral) hops growing on an old homestead in eastern Montana. This happens to be right on top of the Hell Creek Formation, a ~66 million year old package of rocks that preserves some of the last dinosaurs to live on the planet. It also yields fossil amber…and a pun was born!

Hell Creek Amber Ale makes a great name–but could I capitalize on it any further? How could I build a recipe around the concept?

Early on, I made a decision to use ingredients primarily from the home region of the Hell Creek Formation (Montana, South Dakota, and North Dakota). I had a small quantity of wild Hell Creek hops on-hand, and supplemented them with a few ounces of my dad’s Cascade hops from South Dakota. Malt presented a bit of a challenge, though. After some research, I learned about MaltEurop’s Montana malting facility. Fortuitously, one of their flagship products is billed as being malted from barley “grown in and around Montana.” The recipe was rounded out with a few non-thematic malts, to produce a nice American amber ale.

The base recipe is a modification of the American Amber Ale from Zainasheff and Palmer’s Brewing Classic Styles. However, I used American malt instead of English malt, and substituted Special B malt for some of the darker crystal malts suggested by the recipe. The latter gambit was to create a slightly richer flavor, evoking the deep color of fossil amber as well as the rich aromas that must have permeated the ancient Hell Creek landscape. I also modified the hop additions a bit–the only late addition was that of the wild hops, with a steeping to allow any interesting aromas and flavors to come to the forefront. The dried hops had a moderate herbal aroma, which I expect should play nicely with the caramel qualities of the specialty malts.

Hell Creek Amber Ale

  • 9 lbs. 2-row American pale malt (MaltEurop)
  • 1 lb. Munich malt
  • 0.8 lb. 40° crystal malt
  • 0.5 lb. Special B malt
  • 0.5 lb. Victory (biscuit) malt
  • 2 oz. Cascade whole hops (5.1% alpha), 60 minute boil
  • 0.44 oz. wild Hell Creek hops, 10 minute steep after boil
  • 1 Whirlfloc tablet, 10 minute boil
  • 1 pkg. California Ale Yeast (White Labs, WLP001), in 1L starter

Target Parameters

  • 1.059 o.g., 1.014 f.g., 5.9% abv, 33 IBU, 14 SRM, 5.5 gallons into the fermenter


  • I mashed in with 4.75 gallons of water at 167.5°, to hit a mash temperature of 156°. It was down to 153° after 40 minutes.
  • I added 1 gallon of water at 185°, stirred, let it rest for 10 minutes, vorlaufed, and then collected the first runnings. Subsequently, I added 3.5 gallons of water at 180°, let it rest for 10 minutes, vorlaufed, and collected the remainder of the wort.
  • In total, I collected 6.6 gallons of wort with a gravity of 1.050, for 77% mash efficiency.
  • I brought the wort to a boil, adding hops per the schedule above. At flame-out, I added the wild hops and then let them steep for 10 minutes before chilling the wort down to 80°.
  • Approximately 5.5 gallons went into the fermenter, and I pitched the yeast immediately. I’ll be fermenting the beer at 66°.
  • This beer was brewed on 10 October 2016.

Spring Cleaning Amber Ale Kegged

20160526_174737After 12 days in the primary, tonight I kegged my Spring Cleaning Amber Ale. The beer dropped quite clear in the carboy, and comes across as a fairly classic amber ale in color, flavor, and aroma. Amber ales often aren’t terribly exciting to me, but I think they make a nice “dark” beer to have around during the summer months.

From a starting gravity of 1.050, we ended up at 1.014. That works out as 4.7% abv and 71% apparent attenuation. This is a bit higher final gravity than predicted, but could be explained by evolution of the yeast towards a less attenuative strain over the cultured generations (supported by the very clear beer on the transfer, somewhat different from my earlier batches with this same culture).

Spring Cleaning Amber Ale

Amber ales have gotten a bit of short shrift in my homebrewing world lately. They’re fairly easy to craft well, and rank among the classic (and stereotypical) “brewpub” styles. I brewed them relatively frequently when I started out in homebrewing, and as a result got a little bored with them. It has been nearly a year and a half since my last amber ale, though, and lately I have been kinda missing having one on tap.

One good thing about amber ales is that for me they have a fairly broad spectrum of possible flavors, which makes them convenient for using up ingredients. The flip side of this is that they can become a muddy mess of too many competing flavors. I think I have struck a reasonable balance in the recipe below, although the proof will be in the tasting a few weeks down the line. My first task was to use up a few lingering pounds of Maris Otter for the base malt, with the remainder made up with the ol’ standard American two-row. A touch of Victory malt will add some biscuit notes, and honey malt should bring in a bit of caramel sweetness (instead of using the more traditional crystal malt). To aim for deeper red hues, I’ve added in just the tiniest bit of black malt.

Hop Spider in Action

Hop spider in action for Spring Cleaning Amber Ale

Spring Cleaning Amber Ale

  • 5.34 lbs. Maris Otter malt (Thomas Fawcett)
  • 3.5 lbs. 2-row malt (Great Western Brewing Co.)
  • 0.75 lbs. Victory malt
  • 0.5 lbs. honey malt
  • 2 oz. de-bittered black malt
  • 1 oz. Cluster hops pellets (6.8% alpha), 60 minute boil
  • 1 oz. American Fuggle hops pellets (4.5% alpha, 3.1% beta), 5 minute boil
  • 1 tsp. Irish moss, 10 minute boil
  • 0.5 tsp. yeast nutrient, 10 minute boil
  • Vermont Ale yeast (The Yeast Bay), prepared in starter

Brewing Targets

  • Mash temperature = 152°
  • Original gravity = 1.049
  • IBU = 29


  • I made a yeast starter three days in advance, using a jar of yeast that I had set aside three months ago. The 1.75L starter took right off. After two days, I saved 0.6L for another batch and cold-crashed the rest for this batch.
  • On brew day, I mashed in with 4 gallons of water at 163.8°, to hit my target mash temperature of 152° exactly. The mash went down to 149° after 60 minutes. At this point, I vorlaufed and drained the first runnings. I added 4.75 gallons of water at 190°, to hit 169°. I let this sit for 10 minutes, vorlaufed and collected the rest of the wort.
  • All together, I collected 7 gallons of wort at a gravity of 1.041, for 76% efficiency.
  • I brought the wort to a boil, and added the hops and other ingredients per the schedule for the recipe.
  • After 60 minutes, I chilled the wort and transferred it into the fermenter. The wort was exceptionally clear–quite a change after all of the hazy wheat-based recipes of late! The temperature was only down to 80°, so I let it sit in the fermentation chamber for three hours until the temperature hit 68°, and pitched the yeast at this point.
  • Starting gravity was 1.050, nearly exactly at my brewing target. I’ll be fermenting at 68°.
  • I brewed this on May 14, 2016.

Beer Tasting: Experimental Amber Ale

After about 10 days of carbonation, I felt that my Experimental Amber Ale was ready for a serious evaluation. The overly malty flavor at kegging–almost to the point where I was worried that it might be diacetyl or some other flaw–has disappeared, and the beer tastes quite nice. The full story is below.

  • Basics
    • Starting gravity = 1.047; final gravity = 1.013; abv = 4.5%
  • Aroma
    • Clean and lightly malty; nothing to speak of for hop aroma.
  • Appearance
    • A rich amber in color, and clear in appearance. The head is off-white, with good retention, but is not particularly “big” in size.
  • Flavor
    • Malt-forward, with a moderate bitterness that finishes smoothly. Nicely balanced.
  • Mouthfeel
    • Moderately light (but not thin) body and moderately carbonated.
  • Would I brew this again?
    • Probably so, but maybe with a bit of crystal 60 added. I wouldn’t place this into the “absolutely outstanding” category, but there is nothing terribly offensive about it, either. It could probably have a little more of a caramel presence to fit the style guidelines for an amber ale (and indeed, I had intended to add this, but forgot when at my homebrew store), as well as to round out the flavor. If I enter this in a competition, I expect it would get dinged a bit for style. On the other hand, I still like this beer!
  • Overall rating:
    • 7/10