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 SRMsome­where 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’?

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

29 thoughts on “What Colour is Golden?”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

    1. 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.

        1. 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?

  5. 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.

    1. 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!

  6. 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’.)

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. I agree. It is pigeon­hol­ing things. This is X and this is Y, how­ev­er is quite dark and they are a bit fru­gal with the bit­ter­ing.

        1. 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.

        2. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.


    1. 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.

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