Leah’s Beer School: Lesson 36

What is A Golden Ale?

As beer fads come and go over time, beer styles and classification evolve in line with emerging trends. With that in mind, are there any fundamental differences between a traditional Belgian golden strong ale, blonde ale and golden ale? 

Let’s start with the easy part… A Belgian golden strong ale is actually its own distinct style showcasing its yeast characteristics.  It’s a spicy, peppery, fruity beer with a dry finish, light bitterness and an ABV ranging from 7-11%. The colour and body resemble a golden or blonde ale, but that’s where the similarity ends. 

The real question then, is there a difference between a blonde ale and a golden ale?

History of the Blonde Ale

Prior to the 18th century, brewers mostly produced darker colored beers. During the mid-17th century, advances in malt production gave way to lighter varieties of malts. Pale ale started gaining momentum and became an umbrella category for any beer lighter in color that traditional ales, porters. In England, blonde ales emerged as an even lighter version of a pale ale, originally referred to as a dinner ale or sparkling ale. 

World War I and World War II had a profound impact on the beer industry. In 1915, British Parliament introduced the Defense of the Realm Act, to reduce alcohol levels in beer in an effort to keep workers sober while producing wartime munitions. Furthermore, restrictions on German imports meant that ingredients commonly used in darker beers became increasingly difficult to source. Lighter, lower alcohol beers grew in popularity and blonde ale became a standard brew. 

The Rise of the Golden Ale in America 

Similarly, during World War II in the United States, grains such as wheat were primarily reserved for military use. Major breweries began using inexpensive grains such for mass-production of American lagers. Decades later, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the craft beer movement began gaining momentum and breweries wanted to produce an approachable craft beer alternative, an accessible beer designed to appeal to mass-market lager drinkers. 

Independent breweries started brewing a milder, lower alcohol version of a pale ale, that became known as a golden ale – a term they introduced to set their beer apart from commercially brewed blonde ales. 

Golden Ales v Blonde Ales 

According to current judging guidelines, blonde ales and golden ales are interchangeable, though there are regional differences. A North American blonde or golden ale is golden-hued, light-bodied, with low malt sweetness. It is easy-drinking with a low to medium level of bitterness. By contrast, a British golden or blonde ale tends to be more hop-forward and closer in style to an American pale ale. Current guidelines maintain that a blonde ale is just a golden ale by another name, where the distinction lies in semantic preference, rather than a stylistic difference.

So why call it a golden ale? 

Some brewers have suggested that the term golden elicits a more accurate visual representation of the beer, while others want to avoid a gendered image of the term blonde. In the ever-changing craft beer world, it’s possible that the golden ale will someday evolve into its own sub-style of beer. For now, whether you order a blonde or golden ale, you can expect to get a crisp, clean and easy drinking brew.

(Leah is a Toronto based freelance writer as well as Head Beer Weenie and a server at C’est What)