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?

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!

Notes

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.