Is golden ale the new Chardonnay?

on 07 June, 2016

It’s little surprise to see that Carlsberg’s Euro 2016 special, er, brew is a 4.1% abv golden ale. It’s a product spec that’s become the default setting for any beer launch that wants to tick boxes around modern beer trends without risk of causing offence.

I’ve nothing against golden ales and have come across many elegant examples with fresh hop aromas and a hint of accessible bitterness. As default settings go, it’s preferable to the 5% landfill lager that prevailed a decade or so ago.

But it’s hard to shake off the nagging feeling that, in an era when boldness and experimentation are the big narratives around so-called “craft beer”, golden ales – and the pale ales and bitters that are historically different but seem to be increasingly morphing into one generic style – are a symptom of how little we’ve travelled in that time rather than how far.

This was reinforced while doing the rounds of recent spring and summer press wine tastings hosted by the big multiple retailers, where the more adventurous were prepared to showcase a selection from their beer ranges.

Take Sainsbury’s, for example, where six of the eight beers on show from its Taste the Difference range fitted neatly into a narrow, overlapping spectrum of bitter/golden/summer/pale ales whose collective job appeared to be to reassure rather than excite.

The Taste the Difference Summer Ale, Kentish Ale, Yorkshire Bitter and Westmorland Ale seemed to conform more to a house style than reflect the personality of the brewery or provenance of the location named on the label.

The Taste the Difference American Pale Ale, made by Tap Room Brewing in Rochester, NY, might just have well been labelled Suffolk or Cornish Ale for all that it demonstrated the vibrant and dramatic otherness that’s set US brewing apart in recent years.

Where was the sulphurous “Burton snatch” that famously characterises beers from the home of British brewing in the Marston’s-made Taste the Difference India Pale Ale? Instead, it had a tad more bitter hop punch than the other ales, but felt like an IPA to be experienced beneath the warmth of a comfort blanket than on the rugged landscape of challenging flavours.

The two remaining brews were the token dark beer – Taste The Difference London Porter – and a Suffolk Blonde Ale, made by St Peter’s, which displayed the phenolic yeastiness of a German wheat beer assigned to it in the accompanying tasting notes, but which was a disappointingly crystal clear straw colour with none of that awkward wheat beer cloudiness. The colour, in fact, of a golden ale.

Let’s be clear: individually these were perfectly drinkable, fresh, tasty, balanced beers, made with skill and precision by brewers of renown, including Shepherd Neame, Black Sheep and Jennings, in addition to those already mentioned. But as a range, it was, well, a bit boring.

This is not intended as a cheap shot at Sainsbury’s. Like most supermarkets, it now sells dozens of non-landfill lager bottled beers, but just like its competitors a majority of them are on the generic bitter/pale/golden spectrum.

Of the brews listed as “craft beer” by Asda on its website, six are in the pale ale arena, five are lagers, one is a red ale, one is Anchor Steam and one is Crabbie’s alcoholic ginger beer, a refreshing, quaffable drink, but arguably one whose taste has more in common with Smirnoff Ice than its does with Left Hand Brewing Milk Stout Nitro or Beavertown Smog Rocket smoked porter.

Where are the saisons and the sours, the fruit beers and wood-aged beers, the black IPAs and imperial stouts, and all the other reinvented, revived and revitalised beer styles that have brought such interest to the modern beer market?

The big retailers seem to be engaged more in a numbers game than a quest to provide genuine exploration and discovery for their customers. Ranges are, prima facie, exciting, but very careful not to be too exciting.

The supermarkets have been here before, of course, but in wine instead of beer. As wine became an everyday purchase of the masses sometime in the 1980s, there was a rush to build ever bigger ranges, built on a foundation of dozens of interchangeable brands of the grape of the day – what became known in the trade as “the wall of Chardonnay”. The endgame of that process has only been witnessed in the past year as big retailers have culled dozens of suppliers and hundreds of wines from their ranges in the realisation that less can be more and that too much choice can lead to no choice at all.

Golden/pale ale is in danger of becoming the supermarkets’ modern day Chardonnay.

The message for supermarket buying teams? Be brave. The homogenous mass of mainstream shoppers that you think your beer range caters for contains a wide variety of people with a broad range of tastes. They’re grown-ups, not children: they can take the odd hazy beer or one with a tangy sourness, just as they can stomach bits in their orange juice and heat in their curry. And, hey, lots of beer geeks go into supermarkets for their groceries too – but, with good reason, they probably buy their beer from somewhere more exciting.

So, make your range a celebration of the wonderful diversity of the beer world rather than a sanitised, theme park version of it. If you build it, they will come, as the common misquote from Field of Dreams has it. But when you do, make sure it’s not just a wall of golden ale.

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