Beer history Blogging and writing

Is Golden Ale Really White Ale?

Straw Hat by Wicker Paradise on Flickr, under Creative Commons.
SOURCE: Wicker Paradise on Flickr, under Creative Commons.

Continuing a train of thought from Friday’s blog post, we’ve been considering another common beer colour descriptor — ‘straw’.

We read David Swift’s fascinating article about Devon White Ale some months ago at the blog he co-authors, but its re-appearance in the latest issue of the journal of the Brewery History Society was fortuitous. First time round, this 1939 observation from Sir Garrard Tyrwhitt-Drake (!) didn’t leap out at us, but with golden ale on our minds, it certainly did:

When I was a pupil at Messrs Fox’s Brewery at Farnborough, Kent, in 1900 the firm was celebrated for its white ale. This beer was brewed the same as any other beer, but from the very palest coloured malt and sugar, it was the colour of pale straw, but tasted just like any other ale of similar strength.

Now, believe it or not, there is a colour standard for ‘straw’, from a 1930 Dictionary of Color by Maerz and Paul, which Wikipedia renders like this:


For comparison, here’s 4 SRM from that beer colour chart (a little paler than Hop Back Summer Lightning):


And this is Maerz and Paul’s ‘gold’, via Wikipedia:


Finally, while we’re at it, let’s have a look at their rather lurid ‘amber’:


We wouldn’t want to read too much into all of this, but could it be that Summer Lightning, had it been produced before the First World War, might have been considered a ‘white ale’? Perhaps it would have been considered too dark.

At any rate, we’re certainly going to have to attempt to devise a home brewing recipe for a c.1908 Kentish White Ale.

8 replies on “Is Golden Ale Really White Ale?”

I think the “lurid “amber”” is getting very orange and even deeper orange than that is similar to Kruger rand gold coin – certainly golden although the coin does contain copper which makes it orangey copper coloured.

We have to distinguish between two kinds of very pale ale, or rather three. One type was the traditional pale ale/bitter, made in a range of shades with some brewers preferring a straw colour, which would be typical of today. Ind Coope has an ad in the 1800’s (east to search) for this kind; second type was made from slack malt which was only lightly kilned and possibly (or in some cases) partially germinated, this type seems to have die out and the one recollected from 1900 was surely a throwback. Slack malt tended to be unstable and often was redried to be able to use it; and finally Devon White Ale, which had died out by all accounts, at least commercially, by 1900. I’d guess Summer Lightning was closest to the first of these.


Boddingtons bitter was a pale as anything around today and speaking to older drinkers it seems that other Manchester bitters (Wilson’s, Chesters etc) were also very pale beers.

However I think the difference between those beers and today’s golden ales is more down to the hop profile rather than colour. So I think the answer to your question is “yes” in appearance and “no” in other respects.

Here is the Ind, Coope ad:

Interesting that the first testimonial states pale straw, the second one, pale amber. This can be explained by differing conceptions of colour but also, likely the beer was not consistent in this respect. That a very pale colour was prized, which some other accounts corroborate, seems beyond doubt.

John, what would be different about Summer Lightning for hops (other than surely a lot less than 1800’s bitter used)? Did it use American hops?


Gary – yes I’m sure it did / does. What made it stand out was the aromatic hoppiness rather than just being bitter.

Those sound English in tone, but maybe it changed over the years.

By the way note the insistence in the first Ind, Coope testimonial about the best pale ale also being “clear” and “bright”. At times the ideal (we know) was not attained. But it’s doubtful that before about 2005 U.K. brewers put out a murky pale ale intentionally, unlike today. Today, Monty Python’s old joke about pond life in beer would be incomprehensible to the typical consumer in Islington, Battersea, etc.

They are English, Challenger was very popular with West Country brewers about 10 years ago, as far as I know Hopback haven’t gone US on SL.

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