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.
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?