What is Golden Ale? Separating American Golden Ales and Blonde Pales from the British and Belgians

21 Jul Silver Bluff Golden Ale

What is Golden Ale? Separating American Golden Ales and Blonde Pales from the British and Belgians

Introduction to Golden Ale

Golden Ale, a style of beer developed and marketed for its refreshing qualities and vibrant color, creates confusion among beer enthusiasts due to its different variations. At Silver Bluff, we produce and distribute a hybrid of the American and British styles with our Golden Ale. The reception of this beer led us to do a deep dive to see if the term Golden was truly just a marketing style change applied to Blonde Ales or if there are actual unique characteristics that distinguish an American Golden Ale from an American Blonde Ale.

The term “Golden Ale” is confusing when placing British and Belgian styles next to American Goldens and Blondes, and by exploring the various publicly available definitions and brief histories of Golden Ale, the reality appears to us as one where the market evolution has created two styles worthy of separate sub-categories.

Silver Bluff’s Brewing Team Notes

Silver Bluff Brewing Company’s Director of Brewing Operations, Will Melvin, added, “Silver Bluff Golden Ale is a unique representation of the American Golden Ale, which is derivative of the British style.“

He continued, “My take is that Golden Ales were beers for people who wanted lagers by people who didn’t feel comfortable brewing lagers. We have multiple excellent lagers and don’t need our Golden Ale to pretend to be something else. It’s brewed as a Golden Ale for people who want an ale and who want something very different from a hoppy American Pale Ale.”

Kevin Coyle, co-founder of Silver Bluff, adds, “This Golden Ale recipe was created in 2012 as a lighter craft beer easy to enjoy as it gets hotter here in the Golden Isles.  Although light in color, this golden ale has additional specialty malts utilized to enhance its body and flavor.  Willamette and Sterling hops are utilized to create a subtle floral and spicy aroma.  The finish is crisp with balanced mild bitterness.” 

He continued, “We are located in the Golden Isles of Georgia, so our Golden Ale and Golden Isles IPA have to be balanced and differentiated.”

“What is a Golden Ale?” is as confusing of a reality as a style can have

Golden Ale is a location-specific classification of beers.  This means that if you are in the UK, it means one thing. In Belgium, it means a very different thing, and in the USA it was derived from the British definition to be a Marketing style where Blonde wouldn’t effectively communicate the body and flavor of the beer.  

In isolation, it refers to a category of beers that are typically light to medium-bodied and possess a distinct golden color, ranging from pale yellow to deep amber. Whether an American Blonde or Golden, the expectation is that the beer should be smooth and crisp, with a delicate balance of malt sweetness and hop bitterness. Golden Ales often exhibit a refreshing quality, making them highly enjoyable and easy to drink.  The Beer Judge Certification program groups the Blonde ale as 18A here and this year’s GABF groups Goldens and Blondes in one style category for the competition. 

This is the GABF style guide:

55. Golden or Blonde Ale

  • Color: Straw to gold
  • Clarity: Chill haze should not be present
  • Perceived Malt Aroma & Flavor: Low malt sweetness and toast, cereal-like or other pale malt attributes should be present in flavor and aroma at low to medium-low levels.
  • Perceived Hop Aroma & Flavor: Hop aroma and flavor should be very low to medium, with attributes typical of hops of any origin present but not dominant.
  • Perceived Bitterness: Low to medium
  • Fermentation Characteristics: Fruity esters may be present at low to medium-low levels. Diacetyl and DMS should not be present.
  • Body: Low to medium with a crisp finish

British Summer Ales get a sub-category at the Great American Beer Festival, and Belgian Golden Strong Ales and Belgian Blondes are dramatically distinct categories.

Belgian-Style Strong Blonde Ale is even a unique subcategory by the GABF, which is held by the Brewers Association.

Will adds, “For American Blondes and American Goldens, they are pretty interchangeable.”

I think it’d be a rare case where an American brewery would modify, fruit, or get wacky with a Golden Ale, but the word Blonde Ale and the way it has historically been marketed has led to Raspberry Blondes and award-winning Georgia breweries like Georgia Beer Company using it as a palate starter for Fruited Blonde Ales like their Raspberry and Blueberry.

So, is a “Blonde Ale” less marketable without modifications than a Golden Ale in the US, but the beers are interchangeable?  Before jumping to that, we have to consider the industry and history. 

Importance of Golden Ale and Blonde Ale in the US beer industry

Guinness used the term Blonde to launch an American Lager into their full market segment. 

Does that mean American beer connects to lighter, more approachable beers?  I consider Golden Ales and Blondes as the gateways to craft for drinkers and a way that a foreign brewery can enter the US market with approachability and Guinness’ use of Golden for a lager is a clear use of the word Blonde to express approachability and lightness while maintaining quality.

Their follow up release of a Golden Ale to the UK and Ireland market (only) with a beer hopped with Celeia (a triploid hybrid hop of Styrian Golding, Aurora and an un-marketed Slovenian wild hop) and a malty, biscuity flavor profile tells the marketing story.  Would they launch that product in the USA at all?  Would they change the name to Golden Pub Ale? Irish Golden?

Golden Ale holds significant importance in the USA beer industry, as it represents a popular choice for casual beer drinkers and connoisseurs. Its drinkability and refreshing nature are ideal for social gatherings and a high-quality Golden Ale is something worth having at an outdoor event and feels better as a host than icing up a 30 rack of Bud Light. 

Cigar City’s Golden Ale takes this tact – “Built for the warmer months (of which Florida has plenty), Cigar City Brewing’s Golden Ale is brewed with American Willamette hops and pale wheat malt to create a low-alcohol American Golden Ale that balances bread-like malt flavors with herbaceous hops and a vibrant carbonation.”  Effectively, you know us for our big Stouts and IPAs, here’s the one everyone will enjoy when it is hot outside.

As a gateway style to craft beer, I’ve seen many Silver Bluff drinkers recognize more complex flavors and styles and want to learn more about our Bright (Helles) Lager and British Styles.

In this article, we review some American Goldens and Blondes worth finding.  Check it out!

Golden Ale in Beer Garden

A brief history of Golden Ale

The origins of Golden Ale can be traced back to different regions, with distinct interpretations emerging over time. British Golden Ales, for instance, have a rich history deeply rooted in traditional cask brewing practices. These iterations often showcase a more malt-forward character, emphasizing biscuity notes and caramel flavors. British Summer Ales and Golden Bitters are additional classes of the Golden Ale group.   Randy Mosher writes about the British Summer Ale here.  

Poetically, he states “A shaft of golden light rips through a thin patch of the blotchy white sky. On the beach below, towels unfurl to reveal bumpy legs cased in vampire-white flesh, which cooks quickly to prawn pink in the hazy brilliance. Released from the dark closet of winter, seekers young and old sit and squint, dazed, mole-like, in the mossy sea air. It’s a perfect summer day in England.

And it begs for a perfect summer ale–crisp, dry, refreshing, but sturdy enough to satisfy, a lovely citric hop aroma leaps from the dazzling white meringue.

A style like this seems so right, so suited to the timeless cycle of seasons, that it’s hard to believe that summer ale is actually quite a modern creation, not yet 20 years old. John Gilbert of Hop Back Brewery created his famous Summer Lightning in the late 1980s, and it remains the standard bearer for this style.”

Belgian Golden Ales exhibit a unique ale yeast-driven profile, boasting fruity esters, spicy phenols, and a dry finish.

In the United States, American Blonde Ales emerged as a distinct style that shares similarities with both British and, except for the ale yeast profile, Belgian Golden Ales. This marketing-driven approach aligns the American and British interpretations of Golden Ale, embracing a lighter malt presence and a greater focus on hop flavor and aroma. This adapted style has received widespread recognition and acceptance, becoming a benchmark for judging Golden Ales in the industry.

By understanding the background and evolution of Golden Ale across different regions, we can appreciate the diversity within this style and better distinguish between its various iterations.

How do you tell an American Blonde or Golden Apart from a UK and Belgian? We’ll get there.

Golden Ale Characteristics

Golden Ale is a beer style often misunderstood and confused with other similar beer styles like Pale Ales Belgian ales. Differentiating Golden Ale from these different styles and exploring the significance of malt, hops, yeast, and fermentation in Golden Ale is a tough challenge.

Differentiating Golden Ale from other Beer Styles

While American Golden Ale and American Blonde ales may be regarded as synonymous by the industry and the term Golden Ale started out as a Marketing name, in the market, American Golden Ales generally exhibit a more significant body and complexity. They are less likely to be modified by a modern American craft brewery unless they are doing so to emulate a Belgian flavor by adding spices or varying the yeast in some way. 

British Golden Ales, also known as British Summer Ales or Golden Bitters, share similarities with American Golden Ales and Blonde Ales. They are known for their balanced malt and hop flavors, often with a slightly fruity or floral character. British Golden Ales typically have a medium body and a golden to amber color.

Belgian Golden Ale, specifically the Belgian Golden Strong Ale, differs dramatically from its American and British counterparts. These beers are known for their high alcohol content, ranging from 6-10% ABV, and their complex flavors of fruit, spice, and yeast. Belgian Golden Strong Ales have a light, golden color and are often highly carbonated.

Belgian Blondes are smaller (smaller malt bills and alcohol) than a Golden Strong, frequently hoppier, and exhibiting yeast-bred flavors than the rest.

Basically, if you ask for a Golden Strong or a Blonde Ale in Belgium, it will be hard to miss the differences between those and any American or British offering.

Malts and Hops in Golden Ales

Malt and hops play essential roles in Golden Ale, contributing to its flavor, aroma, and appearance. 

Golden Ales, Blonde Ales, and most standard US Pale Ales have subtle malt sweetness and a smooth, crisp finish. The malt often imparts flavors of bread, biscuit, or honey.

A typical malt bill for a US Golden Ale will include 2-row pale malt as a base, and some will add very light Crystal or similar at 20L or lower, often 15L. Sometimes a light amount of wheat can be reasonable for head retention.  

Infrequently, to add some more color and complexity and lean British with the beer, Vienna, Munich, or under 5% of a malt like Biscuit can be an option.

Hops in Golden Ale provide balanced bitterness and contribute to the beer’s aroma. American Golden Ales may feature hops with citrusy or floral characteristics, while British versions tend to have a more earthy or herbal hop profile. Belgian Golden Ales tend to have a different role in the beer to balance out the beer’s complex flavors.

Silver Bluff uses US and German hops in our Golden Ale to bridge the gap between the styles.

Impact of Yeast and Fermentation on Flavor and Aroma

Yeast and fermentation seriously impact the flavors and aromas of Golden Ale. American Golden Ales typically use clean-fermenting yeast strains that produce a clean, crisp taste with minimal yeast-derived flavors. British Golden Ales, however, may utilize yeast strains that contribute subtle fruity esters, adding complexity to the beer’s flavor profile.

Belgian Golden Ales are known for their unique yeast strains that produce various flavors, including fruity esters, spicy phenols, and sometimes even a slight tartness. These yeast characteristics significantly differentiate them from American and British counterparts.

So, when we hear “Golden Ale,” the question has to be, “Where is it from?” to understand and begin to set expectations of what beer you are about to drink. Each style has its unique characteristics, ranging from the subtle and clean flavors of American Golden Ales to the fruity and complex profiles of Belgian Golden Ales. Knowing these and researching other nearby categories like Kölsch has led to a great appreciation for the marketing style that has become a differentiated category.

Beer History! A Quick Historical Background

Golden Ale has a rich history rooted in the United Kingdom, where it initially gained prominence. The development of the British Golden Ale can be traced back many hundreds of years when breweries began experimenting with pale malts. This innovation involved using less-heavily kilned malts, giving the beer a lighter color and delicate flavors.

British Golden Ale was initially known for its subtle malt character, showcasing a biscuity and mildly sweet taste. The hop presence in these ales was restrained, making the malt profile clear. Over time, the brewing techniques evolved, and brewers started incorporating more hops, resulting in a slightly more balanced beer.

I went back through one of my favorite beer books, Austerity! (buy it) which has a history of British Brewing in post-war England, and I plan to write a post about these in the future.  Until then, check out this book to learn about all of Britain and how their beer profiles progressed.

Try to find some Summer Lightning while you wait.

In North America, Golden Ale took on a distinct character that set it apart from its British counterpart. The American influence on this style increased the emphasis on hop-forward flavors, leading to a more assertive and refreshing beer. The emergence of craft breweries in the late 20th century played a pivotal role in popularizing American Golden Ale.

The first American beers of any prominence using the Golden Ale or Blonde Ale name were in the 1970s, and modern breweries tend to see it as a naming choice.

Firestone Walker’s 805 has led the Silver Bluff team to discuss which would be better for it, and this is a popular take with craft drinkers.  Their use of hops elegantly (probably Willamette, but I don’t know for sure) would give me the cue to flag it as a Golden instead of a Blonde for marketing, but they know the California audience better than me.

American brewers often mix American and European hops, infusing the beer with vibrant citrus, pine, and floral notes. This hop-forward approach creates a prominent bitterness that nicely complements the light malt character, resulting in a crisp and refreshing beer. American Golden Ale is typically medium-bodied and displays a golden to light amber color.

Brewing Process for Golden Ale Production

The brewing process for Golden Ale in both British and American variations follows similar steps, with specific differences in ingredients and techniques. However, it is essential to note that Belgian Golden Ale diverges significantly from its British and American counterparts with ingredients, flavors, and processes.

British Golden Ale will frequently have pale malt like Golden Promise or a Maris Otter malts, providing a subtle malt backbone and a touch of biscuit-like sweetness. British hops, such as EKG (East Kent Golding), Fuggles, or similar, are utilized for their earthy and floral qualities, adding complexity to the beer.

In contrast, American Golden Ale showcases its distinct personality through the selection of hops. American hop varieties, such as Cascade and Sterling or German hops like Saaz, are often chosen for their bold flavors and aromas. 

On the other hand, Belgian Golden Ale diverges significantly from British and American interpretations. Belgian brewers often utilize unique yeast strains that impart fruity esters and spicy phenols. This style of Golden Ale tends to display a higher alcohol content and a more complex flavor profile with notes of clove, banana, and bubblegum.

Flavor Profile: Separating American Golden/Blonde Ales from British and Belgians

In the beer world, Golden Ale encompasses a wide range of styles that differ significantly in flavor profiles. This article and the links referenced are part of a journey to differentiate American, British, and Belgian Golden Ales. Still, most importantly, I hope that the info has given you the information you’ll need to develop your own point of view on what makes an American Golden Ale special and whether you feel it is worthy of a unique classification or just a synonym of Blonde Ale.


Group of friends drinking Golden Ale

American Golden Ale and its Association with Craft Beer

The American variation of Golden Ale has its own distinct characteristics and holds a special place within the craft beer movement. With the rise of the craft beer industry in the late 20th century, American Golden Ales have become increasingly popular and have gained recognition for their innovative twists on this classic beer style.

American Golden Ales tend to differentiate themselves from their British and Belgian counterparts through their hop-forward character and a greater emphasis on showcasing American hop varieties. While British Goldens often focus on malt flavors, American breweries have taken advantage of the rich diversity of hop varieties available in the United States. They frequently use the Blonde Ale as a foundation for beers with fruits and spices.

The influence of American hops gives additional opportunities for balance and provides a refreshing and aromatic option for brewers.

The craft beer movement in the United States has played a significant role in the progression and popularity of American Golden Ales and opened up the market for Blonde Ales to grow.  Beer drinkers want higher quality light beers, and being able to find those at their favorite craft breweries pushes boundaries. When those breweries experiment with different hop combinations to create unique and exciting flavor profiles, it defines the “gateway” where American Golden Ales and Blonde Ales live for beer drinkers in the US.

Countless variations of American Blonde Ales, including fruit-infused, barrel-aged, and dry-hopped versions, are in every state in the US.  These innovative twists on the traditional style will keep the marketing value of both names fresh and less likely to fade away like boom-and-bust style trends that aren’t built on the foundation of sound brewing practices.

American Golden Ales have carved out their own unique identity within the broader spectrum of Golden Ales. With a focus on high-quality ingredients and flavors, solid marketing, and emphasis on the craft beer movement, American microbrewers have revitalized this classic beer style and made it their own. From the experimentation with different hops to introducing innovative twists, these styles have continuously evolved and, in many cases, made a brand known for an IPA as their flagship more approachable for a wider audience, like Firestone Walker

Whether you prefer a traditional British Golden Ale, a unique Belgian variation, or a hoppy and innovative American interpretation, Golden Ales are the craft option when the weather is great whether the food pairing comes off the grill or out of a picnic basket onto paper dishes.

Kevin Coyle, co-founder of Silver Bluff, adds, “This is my go-to beer on a hot South Georgia day.

I think we can all agree on that.