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.

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?

A crawl in Clapham

We’re not going to let the fact that most of the tube does­n’t work at week­ends at the moment stop us from explor­ing. A cou­ple of Sat­ur­days back, we decid­ed to go to Clapham and inves­ti­gate some of the inter­est­ing sound­ing pubs men­tioned in var­i­ous guides and web­sites.

What did we know of Clapham before this vis­it? Well, it used to be home to around 300 dread­ful stripped-pine and chrome con­tem­po­rary bev­er­age appre­ci­a­tion spaces – the kinds of place which we sus­pect soured a lot of CAMRA types on mod­ern pubs for good, with their cold atmos­pheres and selec­tion of iden­ti­cal and bland ‘world lagers’. On the high street, at least, those are still in abun­dance, but now look­ing increas­ing­ly care­worn and old-fash­ioned. All the men were wear­ing lit­tle hats and skin­ny jeans; the girls were in Uggs. Style over sub­stance.

Off the high street, how­ev­er, there’s plen­ty to enjoy – the kinds of pubs which fall between full-on trendi­ness and cater­ing pure­ly to old men.

Summer Lightning and Downton German Pale Ale Face/Off
Sum­mer Light­ning and Down­ton Ger­man Pale Ale Face/Off

Our first port of call was the Mason’s Manor Arms, which is in the Good Beer Guide and has been for years. It made the trek worth­while. It’s a small, cosy pub set back from the street behind a small beer gar­den. The only con­ces­sions to 1990s-style Clapham trendi­ness are some well-worn sofas and a rather nice con­tem­po­rary frontage. All the cosi­ness in the world can’t make up for ter­ri­ble beer, but the Mason’s Manor has noth­ing to wor­ry about on that front. Their Sum­mer Light­ning was astound­ing­ly good. Down­ton’s Ger­man Pale Ale, their cur­rent guest ale, was a fas­ci­nat­ing, con­fus­ing and deli­cious beer, evi­dent­ly brewed with all-Ger­man lager-type ingre­di­ents and fer­ment­ed Eng­lish-style. Sim­i­lar to Sum­mer Light­ning, but fresh­er and crisper. Tim­o­thy Tay­lor Land­lord and Ring­wood Bit­ter were also on offer and beyond crit­i­cism in their fresh­ness and con­di­tion.

The Bread and Roses
The Bread and Ros­es

Com­fort­able as we were, we man­aged to haul our­selves up and out to make it along the road to the Bread and Ros­es. Now, on paper, this sound­ed like our kind of place: a pub run to raise funds for left-wing caus­es which offers a large range of guest ales and spe­cial­ty beers. And it exceed­ed expec­ta­tions.

First, the inter­est­ing beers on tap: Sharp’s Doom Bar, Sharp’s IPA, Puri­ty Pure Gold, Bud­var, Bud­var Dark, Sier­ra Neva­da Pale Ale, Stiegl (from Aus­tria), Erdinger Weiss­bier and Mared­sous Blonde. Then in bot­tles: Maisel’s Dunkel­weiss, Brook­lyn Lager, Brook­lyn Choco­late Stout and Anchor Steam. Noth­ing we had­n’t tried before, but lots we were pleased to see on offer and, once again, all those we tried were fresh and tasty. We also liked the fact that there were lots of explana­to­ry notes on the pumps and boards to explain what the var­i­ous beers were like, and there were also sug­ges­tions on the menu as to which wine or beer would match with the food.

The pub itself is an old Vic­to­ri­an build­ing decked out in late 90s trendy pub style, except that it also has paint­ings of left-wing ora­tors in 19th cen­tu­ry Lon­don, big screen foot­ball, copies of the Lon­don Drinker and numer­ous oth­er things that under­cut any sense of pre­ten­sion. Why is this place not more famous? Why was it not crammed? Maybe being nei­ther whol­ly trendy nor designed for old men makes for a hard-to-sell pub? It makes a point of being child-friend­ly, so per­haps that scared the GBG off. And, of course, it’s not right next to a tube sta­tion.

One caveat: the food was great and cheap (espe­cial­ly giv­en the qual­i­ty) but took a while to arrive (35 min­utes) so don’t build your vis­it around a meal.

Our crawl was cut short at this point when we moved on in the driz­zle to find that Micro­bar does­n’t open on Sat­ur­day after­noons. Anoth­er time. Clapham has a lot to offer, and we’re com­ing back for anoth­er ses­sion!


Both the Manor Arms and Bread and Ros­es are on Clapham Manor Street. The near­est tube stops are Clapham North or Clapham Com­mon; alter­na­tive­ly, trains to Clapham High Street leave from Vic­to­ria and Lon­don Bridge approx­i­mate­ly every half an hour. Micro­bar is tech­ni­cal­ly Bat­tersea, rather than Clapham, but it’s a fair­ly short stag­ger from the Bread and Ros­es; if you go along the Wandsworth Road you’ll pass the Plough Inn, now a Young’s pub, and an old, defunct brew­ery that goes back at least to 1869, before being bought by Sim­monds and then Courage. Google map here, show­ing all the loca­tions men­tioned.