Blondes Are Beautiful
A blonde, a blonde, I need a blonde. Being a bit particular, not just any blonde, of course, will do.
No, I need a delicious blonde with a certain character, a certain aura; a well-balanced blonde who, when held, gives a man a warm feeling inside; a blonde with a lovely appearance and a spectacular body; in short, a knockout, drop-dead natural blonde who would stun me again and again.
What? What about brunettes and redheads? Oh, now I see—no, you misunderstand. No, no. Ahhhh, you’ve got it all wrong there. I’m not talking about those blondes! No, not women! I meant blonde beer! Blonde ale, to be precise.
But I wouldn’t mind having one—just as described, too.
Sometimes the French Get It Right
French speakers use the word “blonde” to describe yellow-colored beer. English speakers use the word “golden.” (To avoid unsavory comparisons, it’s obvious why we don’t call blonde ale “yellow,” except as a derisory term. And “gold” evokes such a teeth-cracking metallic image.)
Unlike the human variety, blonde ales have been ignored or overlooked in favor of the shiny penny and midnight colored beer styles: the various bitters, pale ales, porters and stouts.
Now, if you would please direct your attention to the stage, I shall introduce you to our blonde finalists chosen from the many light-colored ale styles brewed in Britain, Europe, and North America. On the left, ahem, is the British blonde; on the right is the North American blonde; and in the middle is the Belgian blonde.
The British Blonde
For some unknown reason, blondes seem to have been lost in the shuffle, even in Britain. This is a bit perplexing, as an examination of 1,005 British cask ales reveals that 126, or 12.5 percent, are blondes. Several others may be found lurking under the guise of “summer ale.” That is a not insignificant figure, yet blondes are rarely mentioned.
The style was pioneered in 1986 by Somerset Brewery at Wiveliscombe. Since then, the number of craft brewers producing them has exploded. The development of the style may be viewed as a response to the popularity of yellow lager, an effort to regain market share. In blondes, craft brewers have a product that pubs can offer punters as an alternative to lager—same color, more tasty. Too, those seeking to distinguish themselves in the marketplace have an offering that consumers perceive as different from the standard ales most breweries produce: one, two, or three bitters; a porter or stout; and a mild.
Bramlings Cross, Challenger, Fuggle, Golding varieties, and Target are the most popular kettle, aromatic, and dry hops used. Surprisingly, various North American hops, such as Cascade, Liberty, Mount Hood, and Willamette, and the noble German hops, Hallertauer and Hersbrucker, are used in some. Most brewers prefer Maris Otter malt. Halcyon and Pipkin are used less frequently. Several brands have small fractions of wheat malt to aid head retention and to increase liveliness on the tongue.
The alcohol by volume (ABV) band is but 2 percent and neatly covers the entire range (3.0 to 5.9 percent) of British bitters: standard bitter, special bitter, and extra special (or strong) bitter, commonly called ESB in North America. Whereas British brewers have broken the bitter group into three sub-styles roughly based on alcohol content, they have not done so with their blonde ales.
After a review of the names of the 126 blondes, it appears that British brewers don’t quite know what to call them. Several use the word “gold” in the name; others incorrectly call them bitter or pale ale. Most do not bother, using instead nondescript names such as “Prince Bishops Ale,” “Lancaster Bomber” and “Town Crier.” Special mention must be given Shawn Franklin of the Rooster Brewery at Harrowgate, North Yorkshire, for his “Yankee,” a stunning blonde.
Because the British blonde ale style is so similar in profile to the three bitter styles except for its color, for want of a better name, I call it “blonde bitter” and leave the term “blonde ale” as a term for the catch-all color group. Others may prefer “golden bitter.” The color difference between bitter and blonde bitter is due to the near-to-total absence of crystal malt in the mash, which gives bitter its familiar copper color.
Specs: 3.5 to 5.5 percent ABV, 1035-55 OG; bitterness of 20 to 40 IBU, color 10 to 20 EBC.
The North American Blonde
This style is similar to the British version except for the following characteristics. North American grains and hops are used, sometimes in combination with imported ingredients; yeast strains may be American or British; and alcohol content does not reach the meekest levels of its British cousin. It is most frequently found in brewpubs or disguised as a “summer ale.”
Although North American beer drinkers have been slowly re-educated in the glories of tasty ales and Reinheitsgebot lagers, most still are ignorant about beer. To most, beer begins and ends with cheap lager. It isn’t really the consumers’ fault. For many decades, there weren’t many styles available. Unsurprisingly, when beer drinkers first went to their local brewpubs, they would ask for a light-colored beer. “I drinks Bud; gimme da closest you’ve gots to it,” was their frozen-mug attitude.
To have something, anything, to serve this type of customer, craft brewers deliberately produced golden ales as a substitute for standard and low-calorie lagers.
The style is a mixed bag. Proud brewers seized the opportunity by producing blonde bitters of character and quality. Their aim was to produce ale equivalents of European pilsner or German helles. Timid brewers, of whom there are too many, aimed low by brewing blonde ales as close to tasteless, bland yellow lagers as possible. These may be characterized as having little detectable hop on the nose and palate, a thin body, and an insipid taste.
So, it is a case of “buyer beware.” You will not know what you’re getting until you pay up and have that first sip.
Specs: 4.3 to 5.5 percent ABV, 1043-55 OG; bitterness 20 to 40 IBU, color 10 to 20 EBC.
The Belgian Blonde(s)
Belgian blondes are wondrous—aromatic, full bodied, full of character on the palate, and, above all, most are strongly alcoholic, unlike British and North American blondes.
After analyses, I have split the golden colored Belgian ale style in two—golden (or blonde) ale and strong golden (or blonde) ale—because the alcohol content band is beer-belly wide, 5.0 to 15.0 percent. This is simply too broad to be of any use when comparing the beers. To demarcate their boundaries, the golden ale style encompasses any brand with 5.0 to 8.0 percent alcohol by volume, and strong golden ale is above that figure.
The reason for splitting the group is simple: though outwardly very similar, there can be no comparison between a 5 or 6 percent beer and one with, say, 12 to 13 percent ABV. The chasm is too wide, as wide as that between a destroyer and a battleship. Put another way, one must avoid the trap of comparing the dissimilar.
While on the subject of alcohol content, it seems that at gravities under, say, 6.0 percent, each one-degree step in alcohol content has a greater impact on the beer’s characteristics than those brewed above than that mark. There is a point above which each step up in alcohol content ceases to be noticeable, masked by the alcohol’s intensity.
Some thought has gone into breaking the group into three styles, in bands of 5 to 7.9 percent, 8 to 10.9 percent, and 11+ percent, as these groupings would be more indicative of the similarities among—and dissimilarities between—each. But for now, I will let the two stand as they are.
Belgian Golden Ale
Specs: 5.0 to 8.0 ABV, 1050-80 OG; 15 to 30 IBU; 3 to 10 SRM; color 7 to 20 EBC.
Strong Golden Ale
One of the world’s classic brands of this style is Moortgat Brewery’s Duvel, which means Devil. When the brewer changed (1970) its beer’s color from deep brown to blonde, it created a new style. Highly aromatic Saaz and Styrian hops gives this beer its zesty bouquet. A distinctive yeast gives it a delicate fruitiness. And, to achieve the light color, only the most lightly malted barley is used.
Sometimes Duvel is mistaken on sight for a strong pilsner. It throws such a big, foamy head upon opening that a special extra-wide-mouthed glass is used to contain it.
Moortgat’s success with Duvel prompted other brewers to make beers in this style.
The head is typically white and, though big due to alcohol content, it does not normally last. The body should be full, with alcoholic warming readily apparent. This style is full of character.
Specs: 8.1 to 15 percent ABV, 1081 to 1200+ OG; 25 to 50 IBU, 5 to 15 SRM, 11 to 32 EBC.
Seeking to avoid being accused of any oversight, I must mention the existence of the other Belgian blonde-colored styles: blonde abbey single, abbey tripel, witbier or biere blanche, gueuze, lambic blanche/wit, peche (peach) gueuze, Belgian summer ales (a hodgepodge of brands), speciale, and some Walloon ales and Walloon strong ales.
So, there you have it—two attractive blonde American and British cousins, and their stunning Belgian relatives.
My preference? One of each, of course.
Buzzards Bay Golden AleABV: 4.3
Tasting Notes: Medium amber colored and brilliant clarity; tight ecru head of good duration. Very clean nose; firm, substantial body for this style and alcohol content; nice aroma of hops over malt. Pleasantly fizzy with good carbonation rate. Hop dominant, but low-key; no spikes on the palate. Slow fade to dry finish, with malt nicely balancing the hop. Exquisite. Drinks bigger than it is. Yellow fizzy-water drinkers! Empty your refrigerators of that bilge and stock it with this instead. This is the epitome of what a high-quality session beer should be.
Russian River Brewing DamnationABV: 7.75
Tasting Notes: A rare American bottle-conditioned interpretation of a Belgian strong golden. Appealing medium amber colored; white head of good duration; clean nose; firm bodied, as expected. Complex fruity and estery notes of banana and pear on the nose, with hints of spices over malt. Excellent carbonation. Starts off very sweet on the palate, like pastilles, the hard, round French citrus candies of my youth, balanced with hops; a very fine finish that it long and slow-fading. If there were ever an MVB (Most Valuable Brewer) award, Damnation's brewer would win it. He brewed his brains out with this one.
Moortgat DuvelABV: 8.5
Tasting Notes: A beer held in the highest esteem by experts. Bright amber and brilliant; huge white head of long duration that laces the glass; clean nose, for style; full-bodied; lovely hop nose, with lemon, pineapple, and slightly musty notes. Perfectly conditioned; malt-dominant, with the hop slowly asserting itself. Well balanced and somewhat dry finish, which is superb throughout. All components are exceedingly well balanced. Lovely.
Tasting Notes: This tremendous 12 percent ABV beer is second to none, and proudly resides high up on my Top 25 list. Deep amber with a copper tint; brilliant; big ecru head of long duration. Clean nose; huge, firm body; malt, and more malt, with some esters on the nose, and a whiff of Grand Marnier. Carbonation is somewhat low but appropriate to style. Malt syrupy on the palate, with hops to balance, plus an attack of alcoholic warming. Long, exquisite, malt-dominant finish that ends mellow, sweet and warm.
Rob Haiber, an internationally recognized beer judge and style expert, is no expert on blondes. He wishes it to be known, however, that he is studying the subject.