Beer history Beer styles

What Colour is Golden?

Was ‘golden ale’ really invented with Exmoor Gold and Hop Back Summer Lightning in the 1980s?


In his book Amber, Gold & Black Martyn Cornell is very careful to point out that there were pale-coloured English beers before then, and some were even marketed as ‘gold’ or ‘golden’, but concludes that it was not until Hop Back Summer Lightning that this really became a distinct ‘style’ with many imitators.

We find that argument convincing and cite it in our book, but this 1974 quotation from early home brewing guru Dave Line (in The Big Book of Brewing) did give us pause for thought:

[The colour of bitter] should shade between a light and dark golden. I am rather bemused that the commercial bitters have been progressively darkened over the last decade as the original gravities have fallen. Seemingly darkening the beer gives the illusion of strength.

But what does he mean by light and dark golden? We ran his 1974 ‘Crystal Bitter’ recipe through some brewing software which suggested a colour of 10 SRM — somewhere between the typical colour of German wheat beer and American pale ale bang on where English bitter ought to be according to this chart from Wikipedia:

SRM chart from Wikipedia.

For comparison, Fuller’s London Pride, which we think of as being a bang-on typical colour for a pint of bitter, comes in at something like 14 SRM.

Summer Lightning, on the other hand, according to most ‘clone recipes’ we can find online, sits at around 4-6 SRM — paler again than Line’s ‘beautiful, golden’ Crystal Bitter.

Perhaps describing colour using simile and metaphor isn’t all that helpful after all.

Bonus hypothesis: We know (keg) bitter got weaker and sweet throughout the 1960s, while mild all but died out. If bitter was also getting darker, was what actually happened that two ‘styles’ collapsed into one? A sort of pre-mixed ‘mild and bitter’?

UPDATE: D’oh! We read the EBC column rather than SRM. Post updated to reflect this howler.

29 replies on “What Colour is Golden?”

Its as much about the lighter flavour profile as about the lighter colour, isn’t it?

Good question as is py’s. The two do not necessarily go in tandem though, since a school of thought holds that crystal malt is meant to lend a richness that the old pale malts had, while colour remains a separate issue.

In Gregory and Knock’s Beers of Britain, on page 7, they describe bitter as “yellow-golden”. The pints in the cover of the book, in a fairly clear colour photograph, generally look on the gold side of yellow, even amber, but evidently they found beers on the light side of this spectrum in their travels and everyone knows that Boddington was fairly light.

At Ron’s there have been discussions off and on where pale ales pictured from the 1800’s have an amber cast generally, Bass seems always to have been been orangey amber.

My view is, that in the 1800’s, some pale ales/bitters were yellow, and surviving examples still existed when Beers of Britain existed, but yes they were darkened probably to give the idea of being stronger. I don’t think though the theory of a pre-blended half and half is correct because mild vs. bitter is really an attenuation issue.

Excellent column as always B&B.

Look at this from George Wigney’s book on malting and brewing (1835) on page 88:

He states that to assist brewing in the summer, when it is difficult to present beers that are “clear” and “clean”, pass your malt over the kiln to darken it so that it is between “pale and amber”. Evidently much beer, whether pale or mild, was therefore on the light end of the spectrum you pictured – golden is nothing new. (Whether using darker malt helps stability and clarity is aside the point for this discussion).

If half-amber was something you did of an expedient, evidently much beer again had to be golden. But there was always a range as other sources confirm, and I believe Burton liked the darker side of it, always.

I think there is definitely something in the idea that bitter – certainly the national brands of “premium” bitter – became blander to cater to the taste of those who would really have been happier drinking mild.

Mild didn’t die out in the 1960s at all and was still wideky made in the 1970s. So I think your bonus hypothesis doesn’t have legs really. In Manchester Boddingtons Bitter was famously straw coloured and talking to older hands it seems that until the early 1960s most of the bitters made by the Manchester brewers (Wilosns, Chesters et al) were all very pale and very bitter.

We did say ‘all but’!

It was in a bad enough way for CAMRA to be describing it as ‘doomed’ by 1979 (WB, Sept). We’ll get some more numbers together and perhaps write a follow-up post, but, just from what I’ve got at hand (FT 08/09/1965) we can see that mild had c.45% of the market in 1959 but had crashed to a little over 30% by 1965, with the line on the graph pointing fairly steeply downward.

EDIT: oh, here you go — market share down to 13% by the mid-1970s, according to CAMRA. They also point out that, to paraphrase, they had become fairly shite, too.

But apart from misreading that, over-stating the decline of mild in the 1970s, and referring to EBC figures rather than SRM in the first draft of the post, we pretty much nailed it, right?

I haven’t got the time to check at present, but I’m sure that Ron thinks that pre-WW1 pale ales and bitters were made just with pale malt and that crystal didn’t start to be used in these beers until after the war.

You’re taking a very London-centric view if you think Mild died in the 60’s – it was very much still alive in the Midlands until at least the early 80’s.

Rod — see numbers above.

A quick look at some of Ron and Kristen’s ‘Let’s Brew’ recipes online gives us, e.g., Tetley’s Bitter at 10 SRM in 1945, and a 1909 Maclay PI with an SRM of 3!

A quick chat on Twitter with Ron Pattinson suggests that typical SRM for a standard pre WWII bitter (e.g. Fuller’s 1923 XK) would be 6-7, so darker than Summer Lightning, but still pretty light.

(The SRM given for the Let’s Brew recipe on his website is a remarkably low 2, but he says that’s ‘not measured’.)

I went to a craft beer bar last night and they had three different milds on out of 8 cask pumps, and it was all anyone seemed to be drinking.

Yes but – 13% market share is still pretty good and it was available in just about any pub you care’d to go in (in most parts of the county anyway). Despite what CAMRA said i would also dispute they had “become fairly shite” – there were many very good milds around in those days – I was drinking them.

Totally agree – in the Black Country in the late 70’s, everyone was def still drinking Mild, and it was very good. 13% *national* ( there were huge swathes of the UK where Mild never meant much, if anything) share is a bit irrelevant TBH (except relative/indicative to previous performance) – in the early 80’s there were still pockets where Mild was popular and good. Midlands and South Wales are where I’m thinking of.

I came to Manchester in 1982 and remember discovering regional brewers I’d never seen before, like Marston’s (!) – in fact the first beer I can remember getting into here was Marston’s mild (at the Royal Oak FWIW). I do remember going back a couple of years later and finding the mild had gone keg, admittedly, and I’m not sure how long it hung on in that form. But the Manchester family brewers (those that survived) never stopped making it.

American home brewing style guidelines are too prescriptive and often derived from only one or two commercial examples. Generally speaking, I’d say that a beer belongs to whichever ‘style’ the brewers say it does, within reason.

Is it dark? I’ve got it in my head as being a shade lighter than London Pride.

I think the low hopping rate just makes it a crap bitter.

Having said that, we’ve certainly read about more recent milds (especially keg ones) which were really the same brewery’s bitter with added caramel colouring to darken them.

A dark, sweet bitter can be a beautiful thing – although the boundary between dark bitter, strong mild, old ale and porter can be a bit hard to draw. I also note that those charts don’t seem to be aware of light mild, a very popular style around here & one that’s often quite straw-like in colour.

John Smith’s is just a rubbish beer, OTOH.

I reckon it’s a bit darker, but i have only seen other people drinking Smiths so i will have take your word for it. London Pride is pretty dark too, much darker that Chiswick.

Phil – I’s not actually looked at what CAMRA says. You are right the disparaging comemnt doesn’t refer to mild at all. Bit of a faux pas by Bailey there.

I keep it fairly simple for my own home brew. Bitter is like pale ale but a bit more crystal and also black for colour. Golden ale is like a pale ale but less iBUs, 30 or so.

Maybe mild has (mostly) died out precisely because bitter became darker, less hoppy and less attenuated over time. Overlap. I’m starting to come around to B&B’s bonus hypothesis.


When I came to Manchester 30-odd years ago, the main local bitters I can remember were Boddington’s (very pale amber, very dry), Holt’s (dark, very bitter), Hyde’s Anvil (yellow, sour*) and Robinson’s (not nearly as extreme, but still noticeably bitterer than anything I’d known in London, Cambridge or south Wales). I never saw Boddington’s mild, but the other three definitely did it (and still do) – both light and dark in the case of Hyde’s and Robbies’.

All of which would tend to support the idea that mild might die out where it wasn’t different enough from the local bitter, but not the idea that this was a general trend. Regional variation always has to be taken into account.

*There’s no other word for it. If I was served a pint tasting like the Hyde’s bitter I remember today I’d take it back, but it was always like that.

Comments are closed.