Some of the best beers being made in Britain today belong to a style that has no name. They are the colour of pilsner, usually made with only pale malt, but they are not mere ‘golden ales’—‘golden’ is not, after all, a flavour. They have extravagant, upfront New World hopping suggesting tropical fruits and aromatic flowers but they are not U.S.-style India pale ales because their alcoholic strength is likely to be somewhere between 3-5%. Though this might sound like a description of U.S. session IPA, beers of this type have been around in the U.K. for more than 20 years. If they are given a name at all it is usually a variation on the simply descriptive ‘pale ’n hoppy’—Mark Dredge’s 2013 book Craft Beer World devotes a whole section to “Pale and Hoppy Session Beer.”
In the mid-20th century there were several British beers noted for their pale colour, Boddington’s Bitter from Manchester being the most notable. That particular beer was also intensely hopped although the hops were English and were used to generate a bitterness that ‘clawed at the back of your throat’ rather than delicate aroma. As the 1970s and 80s wore on, strong dark beers such as Theakstons’s Old Peculier and Fuller’s ESB became cult favourites among beer geeks, while pale yellow lagers became fashionable with mainstream drinkers. Boddington’s Bitter darkened in colour and gradually lost its bitter edge.
As a result, when, in the late 1980s, the first golden ales emerged, they seemed positively and refreshingly innovative. Exmoor Gold from the Somerset-Devon border can claim to be the first of this new breed but it was really Hop Back Summer Lightning, first brewed in 1989, that triggered a trend. Conceived by former big-brewery man John Gilbert as a cask-conditioned lager, it instead became an ale that merely looked like lager, which he hoped would lure drinkers back from then highly fashionable brands such as Stella Artois. It won a string of awards and, before long, any brewery hoping to appeal to connoisseurs had to have a golden ale in its range.
That cosmetic trend coincided with another new development: the arrival in Britain of American and New Zealand hop varieties, along with U.S. beers such as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Anchor Liberty, which showed off those hops at their best.
Sean Franklin first experimented with American Cascade hops as far back as the early 1980s. Having worked and been trained in the wine industry he was an expert in the characteristics of different grape varieties and believed similar subtlety could also be drawn out of hops. His first brewery didn’t work out, however, and he ended up driving a taxi for five years. When he returned to brewing in 1993, he had, in effect, conceived a new type of beer, as he explained in an interview we conducted in 2013:
I’d had Summer Lightning and that was a great inspiration, a lovely beer. Flavour is about competition, the different components coming up against each other. So, when you use crystal malt and Cascade, you get orange and toffee. When you use Cascade with just pale malt, you don’t get orange—just that floral, citrusy character. The plainer the background, the better. It allows the essential character of the hops to show much more clearly.
The flagship beer of his new brewery, Rooster’s, was Yankee—straw-coloured, hopped with then-obscure Cascade and, though still essentially a golden ale, a touch more aromatic than most U.K. drinkers were used to at the time. At a mere 4.3%, however, it also fit comfortably into British pub and beer festival culture, which then, even more so than now, required beers to be drinkable by the pint and, ideally, in multiple pints over the course of several hours. Along with a range of stronger beers brewed by Brendan Dobbin in Manchester at around the same time, it turned many British real ale drinkers into confirmed hop fanatics.
A contemporary product developed quite independently was Oakham’s Jeffrey Hudson Bitter, or JHB, also first brewed in 1993. Despite its name, which suggests something old-fashioned and varnish-brown, it too was inspired by Summer Lightning and has always been golden with extravagantly fruity late-hopping (a combination of Challenger and Mount Hood) suggestive of elderflower and lemon peel. Hopping levels have been constantly nudged upwards over the last 20 years to accommodate the palates of drinkers spoiled by double IPAs—head brewer John Bryan estimates that there are about two-and-a-half times as many hops now as in 1993—but it still seems relatively restrained compared to some newer iterations of the style. Oakham’s own Citra, for example, was the first U.K. beer to use that hop variety, in 2010, and is even more flamboyantly pungent than its older sibling.
Nigel Wattam, Oakham’s marketing man, says that the majority of Oakham’s range is ‘very light, or really dark, with not much in-between’. On the appeal of ‘pale ‘n hoppy’ beers more generally he says, ‘I think we’ve converted a lot of lager drinkers because it’s the same colour, but it has more flavour.’
There is a similar logic behind Kelham Island’s Pale Rider, which was first brewed in 1993 in Sheffield, the northern industrial city made famous by the film The Full Monty. The brewery was founded by the late Dave Wickett, an influential figure on the British beer scene with a hand in several other breweries, and whose former employees and associates include many of the current generation of U.K. craft brewers. Writer Melissa Cole credits Pale Rider with arousing her interest in beer and in her book, Let Me Tell You About Beer, records that it was initially conceived to appeal to female drinkers, with restrained bitterness and ramped-up aroma. Popular among northern real ale drinkers for a decade, it became nationally famous in 2004 when it was declared Champion Beer of Britain by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). It is best enjoyed in Sheffield at the brewery tap, the Fat Cat, where its feather-light body and punchy, peachy perfume makes it easy drinking despite its 5.2%. Nonetheless, the brewery has also produced Easy Rider, a similar beer at 4.3%.
Another cult favourite is Hophead from Dark Star, a brewery in Brighton, a fashionable coastal resort an hour’s train ride south of London. Mark Tranter, recently voted the best brewer in the U.K. by the British Guild of Beer Writers for his work at his own brewery, Burning Sky, worked at Dark Star from the 1990s until 2013. He recalls that, at some time after 1996, one of the owners of the Evening Star pub where the brewery was then based went to California and came back with Cascade hop pellets. These, along with other U.S. hops available in small quantities via hop merchants Charles Faram, formed the basis of ‘The Hophead Club’, conceived by Dark Star founder Rob Jones. At each meeting of the club members would taste a different single-hopped beer. ‘Cascade was the customers’ and brewers’ favourite, so it was not long until that became the staple,’ recalls Tranter. When he took on more responsibility in the brewery, Tranter tweaked the recipe, reducing its bitterness, and, in 2001, dropping its strength from 4% to 3.8%. Today, with the brewery under new ownership and with a different team in the brew-house, the beer remains single-minded and popular, giving absolute priority to bright aromas of grapefruit and elderflower.
If the style isn’t officially recognised, how can you spot a pale ‘n hoppy on the bar when out drinking in the UK? First, turn to smaller microbreweries. The larger, older family breweries have not been hugely successful in this territory, perhaps being too conservative to embrace the fundamental lack of balance that characterises the style. (There are exceptions: Adnams Ghost Ship, for example, has been a notable success both among beer geeks and less studious drinkers.) Secondly, look for a conspicuous mention of a specific hop variety on the hand-pump badge, along with names that include ‘Hop’, ‘Gold’ and sometimes (but less often) ‘Blonde’. Pointed mentions of citrus are another giveaway. Finally, a very broad generalisation: breweries in the north are particularly adept—we once heard the style jokingly referred to as ‘Pennine Champagne’ after the range of hills and mountains that runs from Derbyshire to the Scottish border.
Salopian Oracle (Shropshire, 4%), Burning Sky Plateau (Sussex, 3.5%), Marble Pint (Manchester, 3.9%) and Redemption Trinity (London, 3%) are among the best examples.
Rooster’s Yankee, Kelham Island Pale Rider, Oakham JHB and Dark Star Hophead are all available in cans or bottles, though they are best tasted fresh and close to source. From U.S. brewers, the nearest equivalents are among the new breed of session IPAs and pale ales, such as Firestone Walker Easy Jack. These two distinct traditions—U.K. pale ‘n hoppy is traditional session bitter with a glamorous makeover, whereas American brews are big beers reined in—have ended up in a remarkably similar place. For all of those who like to wallow in hops over the course of hours, both are good news.
Boak & Bailey have been blogging at boakandbailey.com since 2007. They were named 2014 beer writers of the year by the British Guild of Beer Writers for Brew Britannia: The Strange Rebirth of British Beer. They live in Cornwall in the far west of the UK.