For the sake of full disclosure, I have to say that I have a lot of history with drinking COOP Ale Works beers. I remember drinking COOP for the first time at the OKC Zoo Brew back in 2010, and that same year we served a sixth barrel keg of COOP DNR (with a warning label) at my wedding reception. I can remember when COOP changed the name and packaging of their German wheat beer from Zepplin to Elevator Wheat. My wife will also tell you that Native Amber is in her top five favorite beers and it is easily in my top ten.
I also remember when COOP changed the packaging on Native Amber to describe the beer as a Red IPA instead of an American Amber Ale, which leads to the question "What's in a name?"
For this review, I really wanted to dig into why we have beer styles and how they have evolved over time. As consumers, we need a taxonomy of beers to be able to have shared expectations about the products we are purchasing and enjoying.
If for instance you went into a bar and asked for “a wine” and you had no idea whether you were getting a riesling or a merlot, it would be difficult to duplicate the experience at a later date. It would be difficult to rate the quality of one wine vs. another without knowing they had similar attributes. The same is true with regards to beer.
In 1982, when Charlie Papazian was staging the first Great American Beer Festival (GABF), there were only 24 breweries serving 47 beers and the winner was based on a consumer preference poll.
It took the GABF until 1987 to start including style categories (of which there were 13), and in 2018 the number of categories had grown to 102! The Beer Judge Certification Program's style guidelines, which govern most homebrew competitions, lists 27 categories that are further divided into 101 subcategories. I go by the BJCP guidelines, being a BJCP judge myself.
So this leads us back to what are we looking for in a beer listed as either an American Amber Ale or a Red IPA? Well, at some point we are going to start splitting hairs when it comes to describing COOP Native Amber. The American Amber Ale is copper in color with a caramel malt flavor, that is usually balanced with American or New World hops. The Red IPA should be like a hoppier American Amber, with a higher ABV, and a darker caramel to toffee-like malt flavor. These two styles share a lot of the same characteristics with minimal differences, and Native Amber definitely straddles the line. So now without further ado, onto the review.
Native Amber comes in at 6.5 percent ABV which would be a hair too high for American Amber Ale (max of 6.3 percent) and in the middle of Red IPA (5.5 percent - 7.5 percent). The IBUs are listed at 55 which again would be above the max for American Amber (40) and in the middle of Red IPA (40-70). Now you may be saying to yourself "looks like they made the right move calling this a Red IPA" but to me the difficulty in categorizing this beer has more to do with flavor expectations, which I will get to a little bit later.
Aroma and Appearance
The aroma of this beer is a little spicy and citrusy with a grapefruit-like character, these are qualities one would expect from the use of Cascade hops. Hidden underneath that hop aroma is a little bit of that caramel malt aroma you can tell they used just by looking at the beer. The beer has a great amber to coppery-brown color with an off-white head that has good retention and provides lacing down the glass as it is consumed.
Flavor and Mouthfeel
Despite the stronger hop aroma, I taste the malt of this beer first. The beer hits your palate with a dark caramel to toffee-like taste and the bitterness tends more to round out the malt flavor, rather then try and steal the show. The beer does have a little bit of lingering bitterness in the finish and a medium body with a very smooth texture. There are also some subtle notes of dark fruit in this beer, derived from either the dark malts or the yeast, which tend to hang around the edges of the flavor.
As I said in the beginning, I am a big fan of this beer. It has a lot of flavors both big and small. You can tell that it was well made from recipe design, to brewing, to fermentation. The only problem this beer may have is it's classification. When a beer is called a Red IPA, I would assume that it would be a little hoppier than this beer. For example, COOP's flagship F5 IPA comes in at a whopping 85 IBUs and it is decidedly bitter. But if you called this beer an American Amber, I would likely say it is little too hoppy for that style. Often times in competition, beers are dinged for being "out of style" and they receive lower scores despite great execution. Well folks, I know I buried the lede here, but the thing is it really isn't important if a beer fits perfectly into a style category. What really matters, is whether or not a beer provides a pleasurable drinking experience and Native Amber does that in spades.