Back in early days of North American craft brewing, there was one thing you could be pretty much certain of if you were to order a glass of golden ale: It would be boring.
Oh sure, there was variety to be found in the thinly defined golden ale category even then. There were, for instance, golden wheat ales and golden cream ales, golden pale ales that belied their supposed hop-forwardness and even, for a misguided time, golden hemp beers. (Said one brewer who resisted the lamentable hemp trend, “I don’t like rope in my beer.” Right.) But with few exceptions, they were an uninspired lot, less about flavor and, as odd as this might seem when speaking of modern craft beer, much more about image.
Lately, however, something funny has been happening. Instead of being listless, dull and monochromatic, golden ales have become interesting. Good, even. Sometimes very good.
That this comes as a recent revelation relates to the earliest days of craft brewing, how the microbrewing renaissance was born and what many early breweries needed to do to survive. And the key factor is, or was, color.
In case you missed it, the craft beer movement began in force 30 to 35 years ago in response to the continued muting of flavors by the major breweries. Early craft brewers were, for the most part, nothing more than beer aficionados, usually with palates honed overseas, desirous of filling their glasses with something more than a pallid, adjunct-lightened lager. So they formed companies and built breweries dedicated to producing pale ales and brown ales and stouts and, occasionally, hoppy, Germanic- or Bohemian-style pilsners.
After which they awaited the hordes of customers who they had no doubt would beat countless paths to their doors.
Which, to a certain degree, is exactly what happened — but, in some regions, not in the numbers that were required to sustain a business. People took note of the new microbreweries, for the most part, but often they were viewed as little more than novelties.
Under those circumstances, for many breweries, the golden ale represented survival, or at least a shot at it. Gary Fish, founder and CEO of the Deschutes Brewery in Bend, OR, remembers the era well:
“From my perspective, there was a lot of perceived pressure to not stray too far from what the consumer was used to, something light in color and body. When we first started, we did light, medium and dark [Cascade Golden Ale, Bachelor Bitter and Black Butte Porter], because we thought that made sense. We did know, however, that we needed to be as far from Bud Light as we could get. We needed to draw the distinction between what we were doing and what they were doing.”
While Cascade Golden Ale survived for more than two decades, along the way losing both the “Golden” part of its moniker and a bit of its strength, other golden ales from the 1980s became better known for their high-profile failures than for their popularity or longevity. The problem, in Fish’s view, was that the apparent “me, too” strategy was doomed from the start.
“[It] speaks to my point about differentiation in the marketplace,” Fish says. “Making something close to that which is so readily available and so cheap is a recipe for disaster. Making something well that is far from the mainstream will get you noticed. No startup brewery needs measurable market share. What they need is the ability to grow at a double-digit pace on a very small volume base.”
Fish’s argument is supported by dozens of early craft-brewing flameouts. Which makes it all the more surprising that the golden ale strategy was revisited by many breweries in the 1990s, when the economy contracted and many, the Wall Street Journal included, were happily predicting that the microbrewing trend had run its course.
“When things hit the wall in the ’90s, a lot of people ran for the cover of lighter-colored beers,” says Larry Bell, president and founder of Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo, MI. “We didn’t really face the capacity issues in Michigan that some breweries did in the west, being a bit behind them in development, [so instead] we went the opposite way and started our ‘Ten Stouts of November’ project.’ ”
The “capacity issues” of which Bell speaks were largely a product of the state of brewing equipment manufacturing at the time. Simply, if a small brewery was doing well and wished to expand with new fermenters, its purchasing options were effectively limited to large or even larger tanks, which necessitated sometimes sizable increases in production. In the late 1980s and early-to-mid 1990s, it was not uncommon to hear of a brewery increasing its output by 50 percent or even 100 percent after expanding.
While Bell’s Brewery did in its first decade produce a couple of lighter ales, Oberon and Third Coast Beer most prominent among them, the brewery’s focus remained on darker beers. “When people would come in asking for a lager,” Bell recalls, “I would happily sell them Third Coast Beer, which if we started making it today we could probably call a session IPA. Most went away happy.”
Another brewery founder who felt as Bell did was Brock Wagner of Saint Arnold Brewing in Houston. When he started his company in 1994, in the midst of the onslaught of microbrewed golden ales, Wagner says, “the last thing I wanted to brew for myself was a golden ale.”
“We were among the very few microbreweries operating in Texas at the time,” Wagner says, “and when we were trying to explain to people what we were all about, the color of our beer was important. My feeling was that when people saw golden ale, there wasn’t the perception of value that there was when they saw a darker beer.”
Saint Arnold eventually did come out with a light-hued ale, the Kölsch-style Fancy Lawnmower Beer in 2000, but Wagner says that the incentive to do so wasn’t an attempt at survival or a need to make use of greatly expanded brewing capacity. Rather, St. Arnold was merely adapting to its environment.
“It gets hot in Texas,” Wagner notes, “and we wanted a beer that was complex, but also refreshing. Mostly, though, we wanted something we could drink when it was 90 degrees or more outside.”
Hot-weather Kölsches and early session IPAs notwithstanding, however, anyone who was drinking North American craft beer around the turn of the century will likely recall a great number of varied blonde and golden ales, although most probably without remembering many or even any particular beer names. Principally because the majority of such beers weren’t very memorable.
For evidence of this, one need look no further than the Great American Beer Festival’s annual parade of medal winners. In 1999, the first year the GABF made public the number of beers judged in each category, 53 brands were entered in what was then known as the Golden Ale/Canadian-Style Ale category, a rather paltry number considering how many were in circulation at the time and perhaps evidence that brewers were not exactly boastful about such beers. By comparison, the then-still-emerging IPA category boasted 118 entries, two categories of Belgian-Style Ales combined for 72 entries and medals in the German-Style Wheat Ale class were sought by 77 beers.
There are those who might discount such statistics as misleading, especially since categories like Bock, Scottish-Style Ale and Fruit Beers all claimed far fewer entrants than did Golden/Canadian, but considering this was well before the style proliferation we’re experiencing today—54 total GABF categories as opposed to 84 in 2012—one might well expect common categories like Golden/Canadian to have been more heavily populated.
What’s more, fast forward 10 years and what has been renamed Golden or Blonde Ale drops to a mere 43 beers, while the now-segmented English and American IPA classes combine for 174 entries, six categories of Belgian inspired ales total a whopping 307 beers, and 104 beers are entered into the two classes of German wheat beer. Even allowing for the devious nature of statistics, it seems clear that the first decade of the 21st century was not filled with love for craft-brewed golden ales.
Then, entering what is effectively its fourth decade of existence, the American craft brewing industry appears to have suddenly matured a bit, so that instead of being mere “gateway” beers designed to lure mainstream drinker to craft beer, golden ales began to be crafted as serious, complex brews.
It was in 2009 that I began taking note of this change, and one of the first beers to raise my eyebrows was Star Island Single from Smuttynose Brewing Co. in Portsmouth, NH.
Styled after the ales Trappist monks drink with their meals, the seldom-seen and lower-strength “singels” oft-sought by rare beer enthusiasts, Star Island is a lovely and thirst-quenching, 4.7 percent alcohol ale given added complexity and depth through the use of four malts, a single hop and freshly ground coriander seed. It is also, according to Smuttynose’s “minister of propaganda,” JT Thompson, a bit of a tough sell.
“It has not really taken off with the general public,” Thompson says, “and why it hasn’t is a popular topic of conversation around the brewery.”
Acknowledging that many Portsmouth locals, even fans of the brewery, are often surprised to discover Star Island in the brewery’s portfolio, Thompson suggests that its inability to catch on could perversely come as a result of the popularity of Smuttynose’s other beers.
“Most beer in New Hampshire is sold through grocery stores,” Thompson says, “so it becomes an issue of ‘facings.’ If you have cases of our IPA and seasonal selection, maybe also Brown Dog [the brewery’s popular brown ale], then six-packs of each, as well, the store might be reluctant to stock still another brand.”
Nevertheless, Thompson agrees that the rise of more-complex and well-crafted golden ales fits in the maturing of the craft beer industry. “Even if you look at a lot of what you might call ‘new-style’ pale ales, golden beers without a lot of bitterness but great hop aromas,” he says, “they are basically good, solid golden ales being sold under another name.”
One such beer, predating Star Island but lacking a niche for much of its existence, is the post-Katrina benefit beer, Restoration Pale Ale, from Louisiana’s Abita Brewing, a bright gold and richly aromatic ale with a bitterness that could only generously be described as modest. In the Northeast, the Portland-area Maine Beer Co. counters with Peeper, an “American ale” that blends solid hopping with plentiful maltiness to create a beer that’s not quite a pale ale or IPA, yet neither in any way a simplistic “crossover” beer intended to lure big brewery lager drinkers.
In Oklahoma City, Coop Ale Works hides its wonderfully constructed golden cream ale under the semi-deceptive moniker, Horny Toad Cerveza, while Burnside Brewing in Portland, OR, takes gold to a deeper, darker level with its Stock Ale, fashioned after a British-style ESB yet refreshing in a very American fashion. And across the border in Canada, Powell River, British Columbia’s Townsite Brewing made its introductory splash in 2012 with not an Imperial stout or IPA, but a bright, hop-kissed, peaches-and-cream golden ale called Zunga.
“Honestly, we made Zunga for the same reason everyone was doing it originally, which is that we live in a mill town and needed a gateway beer for people,” Townsite general manager Chloe Smith says. “But at the same time, we still made a beer we wanted to drink, fermented with our house ale yeast but given a little extra lagering time.”
Joking that the color of Zunga helps trick locals into trying the beer, after which the flavor gets them to stick with it, Smith gets more serious when she talks about how the brewery had no real problem breaking into the local market. “Honestly, I think people are just sick of being told what to drink,” she observes.
Which, in the end, might have something to do with why blonde and golden ales are finally inching toward their day in the craft brewing sun. Because as much as mainstream beer drinkers have for years been told what to drink via sports sponsorships, television advertising and ubiquitous print and billboard ads, so too have craft beer drinkers long had others influencing their choices. Except in the case of craft beer, it’s not the breweries or the marketers doing the dictating, but other beer drinkers.
“We’ve certainly been telling each other what to drink for a long time,” says Bill Sysak, long-time beer aficionado and more recently craft beer ambassador for Stone Brewing of Escondido, CA, speaking of the tendency for beer drinkers to influence other beer drinkers, “But I think after all this time people are starting to appreciate more-subtle styles again.”
Part of the anti-golden ale bias is doubtlessly attributable to a general distrust among craft beer drinkers of mass-market beers, the vast majority of which are light gold in color, but another part of it can almost certainly be ascribed to the underwhelming character of many golden ales brewed through the 1980s and 1990s. In researching this story, I encountered brewer after brewer who shared the view that many of the earliest craft golden ales were more “throwaway” brands meant only to draw in mainstream lager drinkers than they were meticulously crafted beers. And most also agreed that while things are beginning to change now, we are still only at the forefront of the movement.
“What I’m seeing with pale ales now is a similar movement, in that brewers are making the flavors of these beers more exciting or adding a bit of a twist to the ingredients,” Sysak says. “It’s the same with golden ales: Brewers are upping the ante and reinvigorating the style.”
And that, combined with an at least partial retreat from the big beer mania that has gripped the North American craft beer world for at least the last half-decade, could well result in a significant increase in the number of complex and well-crafted golden ales you’ll be seeing at bars and beer stores in the not-too-distant future.
Stephen Beaumont travels the world sampling beer, hosting dinners and tastings, and eating altogether too much airport food. He is the co-author (with Tim Webb) of both The World Atlas of Beer and The Pocket Beer Guide.