This beer blog usually caters to the refined palate, but occasionally one finds oneself stranded on a desert island with little to choose from in the beer fridge. For that reason we occasionally "go slumming" and review mass produced brews. Or so says I, because it sounds like a good way to start this review of Alexander Keith's Red Amber Ale.
Full disclosure: I grew up in Nova Scotia, the home of Alexander Keith's Ale, and until recently the only place where it was available. According to the brewery, they've been making their IPA the same way since 1820, and their marketing centers around the idea that it is an old tradition and "those who like it, like it a lot." That was certainly true in my day -- Keith's was by far the most popular beer in Nova Scotia when I was growing up, but we only had about a dozen brands to choose from, and craft beers were unheard of except for stinky "kit" beers that people made in their basements to save money.
Keith's India Pale Ale, which our Good Beer Blog host Alan has famously referred to as "The IPA that isn't an IPA" has been marketed across Canada for the past eight years or so, and apparently the extra-Nova Scotia launch has been quite successful. The marketing wizards have transformed it into a high-end "specialty" beer, when in fact it is just another mass produced domestic along the lines of Labatt Blue and Molson Export.
In recent years, the Alexander Keith line has expanded, which is rather curious considering Mr. Keith has been dead for something like 150 years. This is particularly curious considering the appeal of Keith's is supposed to be its long tradition. So how are we supposed to interpret Keith's Light Ale, and Keith's Honey Brown Ale? Those are brand-spanking new, with no history. Yet the image persists, to the extent that Keith's official Web page refers to these brews as "his finest work."
The latest invented tradition in the house of Keith rides the red bandwagon in the form of a "red amber" ale. Is it red, or is it amber? Those marketing perverts will do anything to turn a buck.
I had to try it, out of a sense of loyalty to my roots. My expectations were not high, although I tried to keep an open mind. So today, in the yellow light of a spring afternoon, I pulled a cold Alexander Keith's Red Amber Ale out of the fridge, cracked it open, and poured it into a hefty ale glass.
Initial impressions were reasonably good. The head did not flare up too fast, so it isn't overly gassy. However, the head didn't really develop at all -- it turned into one of those loose and lazy heads like you get on any mass produced domestic beer.
The color is a bold dark orangey-red, fully transparent. A sniff revealed very little. A sip revealed little else. Regular domestic beer flavor but with an extra hint of caramel. Virtually no aftertaste, which is a bonus for people who don't actually like beer, but a disappointment for those of us who do.
In brief, as a mass produced domestic, it's actually pretty decent. The color, and the slightly developed amberness put it a knotch above many many standard yellow beers, but no better than any of the other mass produced so-called red ales that have hit the market in the past few years.
As a craft or specialty beer, it fails. It's just too safe and uninteresting. It has very little character for a beer with such a lovely color. It doesn't taste bad, it just doesn't taste particularly good.
That blandness means it will, with the right marketing, be a huge success. But for the rest of us, as long as we're not stuck on that desert island, there are many better beers to choose from.