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Beer history

A century before Summer Lightning, Golden Sunlight

Alright, fine, we give in: perhaps Summer Lightning wasn’t the original golden ale.

One of the topics we spent months researching when we wrote Brew Britannia between 2012 and 2014 was the origins of a style that had come to take a substantial chunk of the ale market.

In the end, we broadly agreed with the narrative set out by Martyn Cornell in his excellent 2011 book Amber, Gold & Black: Exmoor Gold may have come first, in 1986, but it was Hop Back Summer Lightning, first sold in 1989, that really kicked off the craze.

It won awards and prompted imitators throughout the 1990s and, eventually, laid to supermarket bestsellers like Thwaites Wainwright, and less popular cash-ins such as John Smith’s Gold.

But we’ve known all along that there were even earlier beers that could be argued to count as golden ales – not least because, again, Cornell acknowledges them in his brief history of the style.

Some are contenders because they were, well, golden.

Others because they were advertised with the phrase ‘golden ale’, or similar.

But most felt like footnotes, failing to tick enough boxes:

  • Very pale in colour.
  • Described as gold or golden.
  • Sold under a brand name referencing sun or summer.
  • Popular and/or influential.

Then, the other day, we came across an 1888 advertisement for one of the early beers Cornell mentions in Amber, Gold & Black and thought, oh, this really does sound like Watkins of Hereford invented golden ale before or around 1887.

"Golden Sunlight" Ale, A light pale golden ale of wonderful value.

SOURCE: Public Record Office/British Library, via Time Gentlemen, Please! by Michael Jones, 1997.

It’s clear from this that Golden Sunlight is definitely a brand name, if not a trademark – and, in fact, the brewery itself eventually came to be known as the Sunlight Brewery to cash-in on the popularity of this particular product.

The beer was, indeed, “light pale”.

And there it is, in black and white: “golden ale”.

Just to cap it off, it was also promoted as being similar to German-style lager, just as Hop Back Summer Lightning would be a century later.

A quick note on dates: we’re a bit suspicious of what is supposed to be an 1851 advertisement for ‘Golden Sunlight Pale Ale’ on the Brewery History Society website. That’s 30-odd years earlier than any other reference to this product in print and, frankly, it looks as if someone drew that ad with a felt-tip pen sometime in the past 40 years. But it’s possible, we suppose, that this ur-golden-ale was first brewed 170 years ago.

It’s probably too much to hope for brewing log to turn up so we can find out more about the colour and likely taste of the beer but we do know from a note in The Brewers’ Guardian for September 1892 that Watkins & Sons was buying up ‘Early Goldings’ hops.

The same article describes the beer as “renowned” and elsewhere in the local press it was referred to as “famous”. (Western Mail, 03/11/1898.)

All of which makes us wonder why golden ale didn’t take off and become a breakaway style in the early 20th century.

Did its similarity to lager do for it in the patriotic fervour of World War I?

Or was it only ever a novelty in a sea of mild, bitter and stout?

4 replies on “A century before Summer Lightning, Golden Sunlight”

That 1851 ad looks fine to me, although it is very early for any kind of “golden ale”.

As for why it didn’t take off, I suspect it was just seen as a novelty, or an attempt to imitate a ‘continental’ novelty. It’s interesting that that advert (if it is genuine) sells it on its health benefits. By implication, anyone who was used to drinking brown bitter – and who didn’t find it upset their stomach – would have no reason to try this weird pale-coloured thing.

This beer appears to have been successful, so I’d be very surprised if there weren’t more beers like it.

Maybe the difficulty of procuring hops during the First and Second World Wars led to the death of this incarnation of the style, as more malt-led beers became the standard due to necessity?

As I said in Amber Gold and Black, William Saunders of Burton upon Trent was brewing “Golden Ales” in 1842, and the ability to brew very pale beers predates the invention of coke in the 17th century: any sun-dried or air-dried malt was going to make a very pale, straw or gold-coloured ale, so golden ales must go back to Sumerian times. at least. But as you say, none of these were “golden ales” as we recognise the term today – and I note that there are now more than 150 beers on sale in the UK with “Gold” or “Golden” in their names …

I suspect you’ll find that across the land there was a outbreak of beers labelled as golden in 1887, to coincide with Victoria’s golden jubilee.

I suspect this Bentley’s Golden Bitter Ale originally dates from then, although Edd’s recipe dates from 1893 :
https://oldbeersandbrewing.blogspot.com/2019/01/henry-bentley-co-golden-bitter-ale-1893.html

Also suspect that until that time, “golden” beer was just “beer colour”, Ron’s research suggests that the idea of *dark* mild emerged around the same time.

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