Young beer lovers across Britain have fallen under the spell of Golden Ale. Roger Protz explores the phenomenon.
Ever since the fi rst Golden Lager appeared in Pilsen, central Europe, in 1842, a crude dividing line has separated Ale and Lager. Ale, many people think, has to be brown or even black and served warm, whereas Lager is a temptress of a beer: sparkling and crystal clear in the glass, wonderfully quenching on a hot day.
In 1980s Britain, Ale suffered badly from the “brown and warm” image. The style was losing out to the pale and indifferent Lagers produced by large national groups. Young people in particular were abandoning Pale Ale and Bitter in droves. In 1986 a small craft brewery in the Somerset town of Wiveliscombe, south-west England, produced a beer for the summer months that it hoped would appeal to younger drinkers and win them back from Lager.
Exmoor Ales had been in operation for just six years but had already picked up a prestigious Champion Beer of Britain award for its Bitter. Now, with Exmoor Gold, it was to help revitalise the Ale category in both cask and bottle.
The brewery describes Exmoor Gold as “the colour of chardonnay or Carling, sparkling in the glass and appealing to both Ale and Lager drinkers.” (Carling is the biggest-selling Lager in the UK). Exmoor Gold is brewed from 100 per cent pale malt and hopped entirely with English varieties: Challenger, Fuggles and Goldings.
The beer has a superb aroma and palate of toasted malt, hop resins and tart citrus fruit. I recall drinking it in a pub garden in Oxfordshire on a warm summer’s day and thinking it was the best new beer I had tasted for many years.
Exmoor Gold was a success and became a regular member of the brewery’s portfolio, not just a summer refresher. It was followed in 1988 by Hop Back Summer Lightning, also from a brewery in England’s south-west.
The Hop Back Brewery was launched in 1987 by veteran CAMRA member John Gilbert in the Wyndham Arms pub in the cathedral city of Salisbury. Success led to Gilbert moving out of the pub and into bigger premises on an industrial estate in the city suburbs. He had already tipped his toes in the brewing water with his fi rst beer GFB, which stands for Gilbert’s First Brew, a 3.5% ABV golden beer, a well-hopped and refreshing Ale.
With Summer Lightning, he pressed all the right buttons. The beer is 5% ABV, making it more typical of an imported, genuine European Lager than Ale. At fi rst, a small amount of crystal malt was blended with pale malt but the beer has got even paler in colour over the years and is now made solely from Maris Otter pale malt.
The bottled version – bottle-fermented with live yeast – uses just Goldings hops while the cask version blends Challenger with Goldings. One year after its launch, Summer Lightning won the Best New Brewery award in the Champion Beer of Britain competition and has since picked up a wagon load of trophies. It has a ripe aroma and palate of biscuity malt, citrus fruit and spicy hop resins. The fruit builds in the mouth and palate – a fruitiness reminiscent of lemon and pears.
While these beers set out to appeal to young Lager drinkers, they must have come as something of shock to people weaned on Carling, Carlsberg and Heineken. Golden Ales may look like Lager, but they are warm-fermented Ales. They are served cooler than conventional Bitters but the use of just pale malt gives great expression to both hops and the fruitiness associated with the Ale style.
Slowly at first but then in a sprint, British craft brewers picked up the Golden Ale baton from Exmoor and Hop Back. In 2000 the Edinburgh brewery Caledonian won the Champion Beer of Britain award with its Deuchars IPA, an exceptionally pale interpretation of the style. This was followed by the unprecedented success of the Crouch Vale Brewery in Essex with Brewers Gold, which was named Champion Beer of Britain in both 2005 and 2006.
Brewers Gold is arguably the closest an Ale can get to being a Lager, brewed with Lager malt and Brewers Gold hops from the Bavarian Hallertau region. It has the toasted malt character associated with lager malt, balanced by a surprisingly intense bitterness from hops expected to give a fl oral rather than a tangy resinous note.
CAMRA – the Campaign for Real Ale – was forced to introduce a new category for Golden Ales in its annual Champion Beer of Britain competition.
Previously, Golden Ales competed alongside traditional Bitters and brewers and competition judges – including this writer – complained that copper and bronze-coloured Ales were being swamped by the newcomer.
There seems to be no stopping the new category and the championship in August 2010 went to Harvest Pale from Nottingham. Such was the demand for the beer, even before it won the award, that Castle Rock Brewery was forced to ration supplies to its pubs; it has now moved to a new brewery in August, capable of producing 20,000 barrels a year.
Regional brewers have jumped on to fast-moving dray. The likes of Adnams in Suffolk, Fuller’s in London, Brains in Cardiff and Black Sheep in Yorkshire have added Golden Ales to their portfolios. Adnams uses American hops in its Explorer while Fuller’s, conscious of the need to shed the “warm beer” image of British Ale, serves its Discovery through a special cooling device. As the beer is pulled from cellar to bar, it passes through the cooler and reaches the glass several degrees colder than the recommended 11-120C for traditional bitters.
There’s been only one known problem with Golden Ales in Britain. The revered London brewer, Young’s of Wandsworth (now merged with Charles Wells in Bedford) produced a delectable beer called Kew Gold that blended some hops grown at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in with commercial varieties.
The beer proved so popular in bottle-fermented form that Wells & Young’s also made it available on draught in summer. But even though Kew Gardens was given a royalty on the sales of the beer, the management of the gardens came to the conclusion that beer was bad for their image and withdrew support for the beer.
It’s been renamed London Gold, proving that British snobbery is alive and well: I suspect it would have been a different story if Kew Gardens had supplied grapes to a wine maker. Across the North Sea, Belgian beer drinkers must scratch their heads in disbelief at the sudden British obsession with golden beer.
Belgians are not strangers to the style and have two golden beers that have achieved iconic status. Duvel is brewed by the Moortgat Brewery. Duvel started life between the two world wars as an amber-brown beer that competed with imported Scotch Ales, which were popular in Belgium at the time; the yeast for Duvel was taken from a bottle of McEwan’s Export.
In the 1970s, Moortgat decided to produce a pale version of Duvel and a legend was born. Duvel is one of the most complex beers I know. Summer barley is used to produce a beer with a colour rating of seven to nine, only fractionally higher than a Pilsner. Czech Saaz and Styrian Goldings hops are added to the copper boil in three stages and create between 29 and 31 units of bitterness. Dextrose is added before primary fermentation, raising the starting gravity of 1056 to 1066.
Two strains of yeast are used for primary fermentation and the hopped wort is split into two batches so it can be attacked by the different strains. Primary fermentation lasts for six days, followed by three days’ secondary fermentation.
The beer is then cold conditioned for a month, filtered, and given an addition of dextrose and yeast that lifts the gravity to around 1073 degrees.
The beer is bottled and held for two weeks, during which time it undergoes a third fermentation. The end result is a beer of 8.5% ABV.
When I sat in on a sampling of Duvel by Moortgat brewing staff I was struck by the way in which the beer developed over weeks and months, moving from yeasty when young, taking on malt, fruit and hop notes before fi nally blossoming into ripe and full-bodied maturity with its famous Poire William signature.
There are now many imitations of Duvel brewed in Belgium, while brewers throughout the world have adopted the name Triple for strong Golden Ale, based on the beer brewed at the Trappist monastery of Westmalle near Antwerp. I had the rare good fortune to be allowed to visit and even stay the night in the abbey earlier this year and was able to tour the brewery, whose 1930s Art Deco design stands in stark contrast to the Gothic beauty
of the abbey.
A brewery was built in 1836 to supply the monks’ needs. Commercial sales were allowed 20 years later to help fund the monks’ work in the community. In the 1930s an architect was commissioned to design a new and bigger brewhouse. Classic copper vessels are set on tiled fl oors, with a mash tun feeding two brew kettles. The kettles are fi red by direct fl ame, giving the fi nished beers a toasted malt and butterscotch note.
The monks and their secular brewers used pale Pilsner malt and whole hop fl owers from Bavaria, the Czech Republic and Slovenia. Candy sugar is also added during the copper boil. The two beers – Dubbel (7% ABV) and Tripel (9.5% ABV) – enjoy slow secondary fermentation in tanks before being bottled with priming sugar and re-seeded with fresh yeast.
Dubbel is a dark beer and is the main product of the brewery but Tripel is catching up fast and is the beer that has established Westmalle’s international reputation. It’s orange-coloured with a fl oral Saaz hop aroma balanced by orange citrus fruit, followed by a tangy, fruity palate with big spicy hop notes and a long, lingering fi nish with warming alcohol, resinous hops and a herbal hint.
Such has been the success and acclaim for Westmalle Tripel that many Belgian brewers now have a Tripel on their list: the Westmalle version is copied but not surpassed. In the US, several craft brewers who produce Belgian-inspired beers have adopted the term Triple. Curiously, given American brewers’ love of English Pale Ale and India Pale Ale, there has been no rush to follow the British craze for Golden Ales. But it would be wise to add a note of caution where
American craft brewing is concerned. So, watch this space.