I picked up a couple bottles of Silver Moon's beers this week (reviews to come), one of which is brewed in the dreaded "amber" style. I will confess to a certain weariness as I poured it out, because I'm almost never pleased with ambers. They seem like a marketing niche rather than a style, which is sort of how I remember them emerging in the 80s and early 90s. Breweries needed something to slot in between pale ales and browns, so they brewed these worty-sweet copper ales and dubbed them "ambers."
Without tipping my hand too much about Silver Moon, I'll say that the first inhalation of its gentle aroma suggested "best bitter," which my palate confirmed. There's not a whole lot of difference between best bitters and ambers, really. The former is a bit smaller than the latter (around 4.2%, compared to, say 5.2%), a little less dark, and a little thinner of body. But these are differences of degree, not type. The major distinction is hopping--with an amber you expect citrusy Northwest hops, and in a best bitter the spicier hops of England.
When I was studying Hindi, one of my teachers had a subtle way of describing native fluency. He spoke nearly flawless English (way better than my Hindi), but there were things he just couldn't get straight. He used the example of "mug" and "jug." They were both liquid containers, and they sounded the same. It took him forever to finally nail down the difference. Beer styles are a bit like that. On the one hand, they have such similarity that on a philosophical level, you almost can't argue a difference. Ambers and best bitters are, existentially speaking, roughly the same. On the other, there's something quit distinct, something worth noting.
In the US, when I encounter a best bitter (or even an ordinary bitter), I regard it as a statement of intention. The brewer knows s/he's selling something that will confuse the average consumer--bitters, especially now, are not bitter. Adding the "best" doesn't help clarify things for patrons who are unaware of the range of English bitters. American best bitters designed for people who can appreciate craft and subtlety. It is almost an axiom that they won't sell.
Ambers, on the other hand, are beers everyone can get their brains around. Look, it's amber-colored. No problem. Ambers seem to have been aimed at people for whom color is about as much information as they need. They are approachable, and their sweetness is enhanced by Cascade hopping, which make them a bit like lemonade. Add some body and you've got a crowd-pleaser, if not a great beer.
For me, "best bitter" implies a carefully articulated beer, with wonderfully distinct (if understated) notes of malt sweetness and hop flavor. "Amber," on the other hand, suggests an indistinct beer of little character--something inoffensive, but without interest.
Clearly, all of this is semantics. I was reminded of how much solidity I had put into the terms, though, when I tippled Silver Moon's Amber last night. Moral: don't judge a beer by its name. Consider me edumacated.
[Update. I forgot to mention one other wrinkle to this rumination: Anheuser-Busch's latest release, American Ale. (It's going to be a frosty cold day in hell before InBud releases a Belgian ale in the US market.) It is ... you guessed it, an amber ale. Now, I don't mean to instantly contradict the moral to my own blog post, but this doesn't bode well, does it? I mean, a Bud ale with 5.2% alcohol and 25-28 IBU. That sounds suspiciously like an "indistinct beer of little character--something inoffensive, but without interest." But let's not get ahead of ourselves. You never know, have to keep your mind open, pick your cliche. All I know is that the Belgians run the show now, so maybe (twist of the knife) it will finally have a little character.
Jon's sitting on a promo package (how does he get those damn things while I pay good money for my beer?), so we'll await his verdict with interest.]