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.