Future looking good for golden ales

02:18, Feb 25 2014

I served my beer-drinking apprenticeship in pubs in and around West London in the 1970s and it was there that I developed an appreciation for England's traditional amber and copper coloured bitters and best bitters.

Although most pubs offered at least one golden lager, in those days it was seen very much as a woman's drink and no self-respecting Englishman would be seen drinking it.

Within 20 years that had changed. The next generation of English pub-goers regarded traditional ales as old fashioned and fuddy-duddy and wanted an alternative, more refreshing beer experience.

Lagers fitted the bill perfectly. Paler in colour, served heavily chilled and with exotic-sounding European names such as Heineken, Stella Artois, Lowenbrau and Carslberg, golden lagers were all the rage.

Lager's success came at the expense of the traditional English ales. Watching their market share being eroded, many of England's larger ale brewers started brewing their own lagers. A few were successful, but more often they didn't have the cache and street appeal of the big-name European brands and lacked the enormous marketing budgets. As a result most of them failed disastrously.

Other English brewers, most notably the smaller regional craft brewers, recognised the trend away from conventional ales but also realised they lacked the technical know-how and temperature controlled fermenters and maturation vessels required to produce lagers. So they came up with another plan.


They developed a new style of crisp, quenching, golden coloured ale that lacked the rich, caramelised and toffee-like malt profile and deep, earthy bitterness of traditional English bitters and could be served chilled, more like a lager.

Known as golden ales, or summer ales, these new beers were usually made with a simple grist of pale barley malts and seasoned with aromatic hop varieties, often of continental European or American origin.

The exclusive use of pale malts produced crisper, biscuity malt notes and cooler mashing and fermentation temperatures accentuated dryness while emphasising the aromas and flavours of the hops. At its best, the style looked to merge some of the complexity and interest of a traditional ale with the refreshing qualities of a lager.

In his excellent 2010 book Amber, Gold and Black, which documents the history of Britain's beer styles, English beer historian Martyn Cornell provides evidence that "the tradition of golden beer went back at least to 1842" - the same year Pilsner beer was introduced in Bohemia - but he also points out that by 1990 there were still only six brews in Britain called gold or golden.

The beer that was to kick the golden ale or summer ale category into life first appeared in 1989. That beer was Summer Lightning, from the Hop Back brewery in Salisbury, Wiltshire.

First brewed as a one-off beer for a local beer festival, Summer Lightning was made from a grist of only pale malt with (English) Challenger and East Kent Goldings hops and featured, as Cornell notes, "a late addition of hops in the boil to give it a refreshing citrus note".

The beer's simple recipe proved to be a winner: Later that same year it was judged new brewery champion beer at the Great British Beer Festival.

In the early 1990s I remember making several pilgrimages to Salisbury specifically to enjoy pints of Summer Lightning at The Wyndham Arms brewpub, the beer's birthplace.

Since I left England some 19 years ago, the golden ale style has blossomed. In 2010, Martyn Cornell noted there were more than 125 beers brewed in Britain with gold or golden in the name, plus a dozen or so others in the same style.

I'd be surprised if that number hasn't almost doubled by now.

A year ago, The Guardian newspaper in Britain reported golden ale was the UK's fastest growing beer variety, "having lured increasing numbers of drinkers away from the dominant and heavily promoted lager brands".

While lager still dominates the UK market, these days handpumps dispensing brightly aromatic, golden-hued ales sit prominently alongside those pouring the country's more traditional styles.

I can't think of a single English ale brewery that doesn't offer at least one such product in its portfolio and some, like Rooster's of Harrogate, specialise in them.

Sadly the golden ale style is nowhere near as prevalent here in New Zealand. Although a search of Ratebeer.com reveals a list of some 70 New Zealand beers which describe themselves as such, that number is hopelessly inaccurate; it includes beers such as Monteith's Summer Ale, which is actually a spice and honey flavoured lager. In reality, good examples of the style are few and far between.

I can only think of two. One fine example I look forward to enjoying each summer is Three Boys Golden Ale.

Christchurch brewer Ralph Bungard created the beer at his Woolston brewery in 2007 and since then it has been his annual summer release. Made with a simple grist of Dunsandel-grown Gladfield pale malt, the beer's signature hop is the distinctive New Zealand variety, Nelson Sauvin - so named because of its distinctive gooseberry, passionfruit and herbaceous character, the aromatics of which have seen it likened to New Zealand sauvignon blanc.

Three Boys Golden Ale (4.5 per cent) pours a bright golden hue beneath a brilliant white head. The aroma and palate offer a combination of biscuit-like maltiness and those zingy, tart Nelson Sauvin hops and the finish is notably crisp and dry.

But my current favourite Kiwi-brewed golden ale has to be Yeastie Boys Golden Perch. Originally brewed for last year's Hobbit premiere (apparently Golden Perch serves the best beer in the Eastfarthing), the beer was created with "enough flavour to satisfy the most ardent beer geek and remain subtle enough to not scare the everyday drinker".

I'd say they've pretty much nailed it.

I first encountered the beer on tap at a bar in Wellington and thoroughly enjoyed it.

At home with friends last week I sampled the bottled version for the first time and was equally impressed. We praised the beer's exemplary balance of sweet, lightly caramelised malt and Nelson Sauvin hops (again) which in this beer offered vibrant citrusy (grapefruit pith?) and tropical fruit-like (papaya, pineapple?) flavours.

Being hyper-critical, I detected a hint of flinty minerality and we all agreed the bitterness might have been a touch on the high side, but that didn't affect our enjoyment of the beer. At just 4.4 per cent, we agreed Golden Perch is immensely sessionable and moreish. Great job Yeasties.

With aromatic, low strength so-called "session" IPAs such as 8 Wired's Semiconductor (4.4 per cent) also emerging in recent months, I look forward to more flavoursome yet quaffable Kiwi-brewed pale and golden ales in the coming months.

The future is looking good.


MarchFest returns to Founders Heritage Park in Nelson on March 22.


The Marlborough Express