Gold or Pale or Mancunian?

Thornbridge Made North.

We’ve been thinking again about how different three pints of ostensible similar yellow beer at c.3.7% can taste depending on which sub-species they belong to.

First, there’s what we think of as ‘honeyish’ golden ales. Exmoor Gold, reckoned by some to be the first golden ale of the modern era, is one example; Timothy Taylor Golden Best might be considered another. Ah-hah, but, you say, that’s really a light mild. And you’re on to something there, because mild is a much better word than bland, which we used to dismiss this group a few years ago. These beers might look light but they have a fair bit of body and some residual sweetness, ending up almost syrupy. ‘Gold’ really works, suggesting as it does richness and a certain weight.

Then there’s the pale-n-hoppies. These descend from Hopback Summer Lightning, of which more in a moment, and are defined by their extreme pallor and high perfume. They’re usually light-bodied, too — spritzy. Oakham Citra is a good example, or Hawkshead Windermere. A decade ago we used to find this kind of beer hard work, all quinine and air freshener, but tastes change.

Finally, there’s an extinct sub-style which has been revived in recent years: the austerely bitter Manchester pale ale which has Boddington’s as its sole ancestor. Ray came back from his trip to Sheffield last weekend all abuzz about Thornbridge Made North; Northern Monk’s (defunct?) True North was another excellent example. English or other restrained European hops, used primarily to create bitterness, are a defining feature, as is a certain dryness, and evident wholemeal maltiness.

So where does Summer Lightning sit? We reckon these days it’s got more in common with the Manchester sub-style (German hops, not hugely aromatic, but by no means honeyish) than the pale-n-hoppy revolution it inspired, via Rooster’s Yankee. Young’s Bitter AKA Ordinary, depending on which month you catch it, might almost belong in that group too. Certainly when those northern lads who founded CAMRA ended up in London, it was Young’s to which they turned in the absence of their beloved Boddies.

The problem is for the consumer is that these beers all look more or less alike, and as we know people less obsessed with beer than us lot often buy based on some combination of colour and ABV. If you like Golden Best and end up with Oakham Citra  because it’s the right strength and shade, or vice versa, you might feel disappointed. And without knowing the context it would be easy to taste one of the Manchester/North ales and think, huh, this pale-n-hoppy from a noted producer of aromatic beers is a bit dull.

Perhaps what we’re hoping for is some sort of convention in naming and labelling. It’s already half there, to be fair: honeyish beers are often called Something Gold or Golden Something, and Boddington’s clones seem invariably to have ‘Manchester’ or ‘North’ in their names. And that middle lot… They always specify which hops are used on the pump-clip, don’t they?

If a lesson in hops, malt and yeast is Module One in learning about beer, then perhaps tasting these three sub-styles could be one branch to follow for Module Two.

That Type of Cask Ale…. You Know the One

You know, the type that’s very pale but still has a bit of body… It’s not just about hops… But it’s definitely got hops. Yeah, you could call it balanced, but there’s a problem with that…

On our recent trip up North, without really trying, we stumbled upon a few examples of this which might, we’re beginning to think, be our favourite very specific, hard-to-pin-down type of beer.

Manchester Bitter in a pint glass at the Marble Arch.

Marble’s Manchester Bitter — currently tasting good in both bottle and on cask, by the way — is a pretty good example. It’s not like a bunch of flowers being shoved in your face but nor is it a miserable old bowl of soggy cornflakes. It’s somewhere in between. It tastes zesty, fruity, fresh and very bitter, but it’s not ‘Like drinking bloody grapefruit juice.’ Which leaves space for the actual flavour of malt — the bread-nuts-cracker chewiness that isn’t just a backdrop or a base but a pleasure in its own right.

So, that’s actually balanced, right, in a positive sense? The constituent ingredients are each allowed to express themselves fully, with none overpowering the rest.

We did a bad doodle that might or might not help:

Golden Ales, 1: extravagantly hoppy, 2: boring and flaccid, 3: balanced, shining bright.

Number 1 is your grapefruit beer — a delight in its own way but ultimately one-dimensional. Number 2 is what we think of when we read ‘golden ale’ these days — it might be yellow but only in a sense of the absence of brown; it’s sweet, bland, balanced like an empty see-saw. And number 3 is what we’re into right now — a nice bit of engineering, but nothing flamboyant.

In Liverpool, we had Okell’s IPA (4.5% ABV) which we’d put into this category, though we suspect they think it’s a Number 1 – ‘Said to be hoppier than a hopping mad hopi’. And, in Manchester, at the Piccadilly Tap, Northern Monk Brew Co’s True North (3.7%) struck us as another example, as satisfying as a fresh roll ten minutes out of the oven. Down in Cornwall, Penzance Brewing Co Potion No. 9 fits the bill. (St Austell Proper Job, while hardly over-the-top, is biased towards hops over malt.)

We’re not arguing that this is a distinct style that needs a name or anything but it’s a thing we know when we encounter it.

Any others spring to mind?

What Colour is Golden?

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

whitbread_pale_crystalglass

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.

Pale but… not so interesting

At some point between when we started taking an interest in beer and now, the niche ‘golden ales’ had found in the market got taken over ‘pale and hoppy’ ones.

A few weeks ago, we had a bottle of Summer Lightning for the first time in a while and, although we enjoyed it, we were taken aback at how sweet and yeasty it tasted. It was one of our first loves and, in our minds, was a super-hoppy, crisp, clean beer. Not so. The same day, Neil Chantrell of Coach House Brewing, said almost exactly the same thing on Twitter.

Exmoor Gold was even more of a shock when we drank it at the George Inn at Middlezoy a fortnight ago: like golden syrup and, sadly, not that enjoyable. We dumped it: “It’s not you, it’s us; we’ve moved on, but you’ve stayed the same.”

We don’t think either beer has changed, though. It’s just that we’ve come to expect a certain lightness and much more bitterness from yellow-golden ales. At the George, our second pint, Glastonbury Ales Mystery Tor, hit the spot: tropical fruit and almost-but-not-quite puckering bitterness were present and correct.

Where does this leave the previous generation of golden ales? Should they change to keep up? And will the same fate befall the current crop of pale and hoppy beers in ten years time?