What Is the Difference Between American, Irish, and Flemish Red Ale?

If your beer is not yellow, copper, or dark brown, then chances are, it’s probably red. Red ale is a popular style of beer throughout the world, especially in Belgium, Ireland, and America. As popular as red ales are, meshing them all into the same category under one definition is almost impossible.

Starting with the closest to home, American red ale is probably the most complex category of the three. Technically, American red ale is an American style of beer made with a proportion of caramel and specialty malts, causing the beer to become more red in pigment. The focus on the American style is the malt. American reds are much hoppier than Irish reds because the American palate loves those bitter, hoppy notes in its beers. American reds generally have 4.5 to 7 percent ABV and can also be brewed as IPAs or imperial styles.

Flanders red ale, or Belgian red, is a type of sour ale brewed in the West Flanders part of Belgium. The ales are fermented with organisms rather than traditional brewer’s yeast, predominately using Lactobacillus. This organism gives the beer its sour flavors, thanks to the lactic acid in the organism. The beers are usually aged for at least one year, generally in oak, and red malts are used, which give the beer its pigment. There’s no hop bitterness, though there may be tannin.

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Irish red ales tend to lean toward the American style, with the emphasis falling on the malt content. But toasty notes of butter and toffee with potential malt sweetness are more prevalent in Irish red ales than flavors of hoppy bitterness. Irish reds can be brewed as ales or lagers, and the roasted grain characteristic of the malt leads to a dry finish in both.