My foray around the northeast of England highlighted several things to me. Firstly, the northeast has a very active, lively and healthy beer scene. Secondly, there are some superb microbreweries operating in this region. Thirdly, this region has some of the best pubs I’ve ever been in. Fourthly, Golden Beers are mostly desperately boring.
This fourth point is not so much a result of location as of timing. I was touring the area in late summer/early autumn, and all the ‘summery’ beers were still to the fore. This period seems to last longer each year, as people desperately try to hang on to summer – like those people who whinge and moan every year when the clocks go back to ‘winter’ time. It’s not winter time at all, it’s our natural time. Summer time does not make the evenings longer – you just get up an hour earlier. Likewise, golden beers do not make a summer – as has been amply demonstrated this year.
I’ve long been suspicious that breweries are making use of this relatively new style in order to brew cheap and uninteresting beers. My thoughts on this crystallised during my sojourn in the northeast, when faced with yet another barful of the insipid things. I am instinctively wary of any beer labelled ‘So-and-so Gold’ or ‘Golden Something’. The inclusion of the reference to that precious metal is often a clear indication of yet another boring beer. I mean even the names lack imagination.
I didn’t start off my relationship with golden ales with such negativity. It was a long time ago, but I think my first golden ale was Hop Back Summer Lightning. I was, and remain, very impressed with that. Other goldens have also wowed me, such as Slightly Foxed Bengal Fox, Oakham White Dwarf, Oxfordshire Pride of Oxford (strangely, not so good in bottles) and Red Lion Chardonnayle, to name but four at random.
Like any style, I suppose, there is a wide range in the taste and quality of golden ales, and I am expressly not aiming my comments at those brewers who heap as much care and passion into their golden ales as they do into all their other beers.
Is the golden ale a fad? I think maybe there’s a touch of that about it, but it’s here to stay. Originally, the golden ale was perhaps invented (some time in the mid 1980s by most people’s reckoning; Exmoor brewery claim that their Exmoor Gold – a fine brew by any standards – was the first) to tempt the lager drinker away from their nasty mass-produced tasteless product and to present them with something that looked more like what they were used to drinking. You won’t get a lager drinker to try his first pint of real ale if it’s a heavy porter or a strong stout, the shock of the difference will be too great. But present a real ale that looks lagerish, then you’ve won the first battle.
Does it then follow that the second battle should be about taste? Yes it does. A fine, crisp, hoppy mouthful is what you should expect, but some brewers seem to have taken the line that if making their golden ale look like lager wins the first battle, then making it taste the same by the simple expedient of removing almost every last vestige of flavour, should win the second. The trouble is that nobody is going to go for that. The adventurous lager drinker may try a dull golden, be unimpressed by the absence of taste (he was told to expect so much more), and return to his usual ‘product’. The real ale drinker will be equally unimpressed (he’s used to so much more).
I am sure that I am not alone in disliking having to strain to get any taste from beer. Comments like ‘a bit hoppy, but only a bit’, ‘flavours all rather muted’, ‘slight hoppiness at the end, but not much’ and ‘slight hops fail to get a grip, not much flavour’ pepper my notes from my northeast tour.
A golden ale should not taste like a failed IPA, as many of these do. According to the 2013 Good Beer Guide, in a golden ale ‘…hops are allowed to give full expression, balancing sappy malt with luscious fruity, floral, herbal, spicy and resinous characteristics.’ That’s a tall order, and many very decent golden ales only get some of those, but it’s a hell of a long way from ‘a bit hoppy, but only a bit.’
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