Pale ‘n’ ‘Oppy

Matt Curtis reveals how golden ale became a mainstay of British beer culture


“I want a Mallinson’s beer to be something you can drink all night,” Tara Mallinson tells me.

The Huddersfield brewery is well known in the North West of England for its pale, golden, intensely hop-accented and bitter cask ales. Beers like its single-hopped Citra, which rasps at the palate affectionately with tinges of grapefruit and lemon zest, leaving off-white rings of foam trailing down its glass, as evidence of long, satisfying sips.

As the owner and head brewer of the eponymously named brewery, Mallinson draws a great deal of inspiration from brewers of the region that came before her. Influential figures such as Sean Franklin who founded Yorkshire’s Roosters Brewery in 1993, Richard Sutton of Rochdale’s Pictish Brewery, and Brendan Dobbin of the long defunct West Coast Brewing Company, who in the early 90s conjured a storm in Manchester with his Yakima Grande Pale Ale. Local drinkers old enough to remember still speak of the beer fondly.

The common thread between those brewers, Mallinson included, is that they each built their reputations on the back of the style that today is commonly referred to as Golden Ale. Straw pale in the glass, relatively low in ABV, almost exclusively served from cask, and hopped to the edge of unpleasant astringency (without ever becoming so), it is a mainstay on the bar in the North West. Head to a proper pub like Stockport’s The Magnet, or Huddersfield’s The Sportsman, take a look around, and you’ll see regulars enjoying “pale ‘n’ ‘oppy” beers, before returning to the bar for another. This is a style that sessions are made of, designed for repeated supping.

“It's the beer style I learned to love, and I wanted to brew the beer I wanted to drink,” Mallinson says. “I find if a beer is on the dry side and the hops add astringency that makes sure the beer isn't cloying, that leaves you wanting to drink more.”

While Golden Ale as a style has strong roots in Manchester, West Yorkshire and the surrounding areas, it’s a style that has been interpreted regionally by many British breweries. Take Oakham JHB from East Anglia, for example, Crouch Vale Brewers Gold in Essex, or Dark Star Hophead, which put Sussex on the map for modern cask beer. It’s not an exclusively English style either, with beers like Fyne Ales Jarl proving its popularity surmounts borders. Just make sure you don’t call it “Golden”, as Scottish brewers prefer to describe it as Blonde Ale.

“We always come back to the simplicity of Jarl as the reason why it has had such a long-standing popularity,” Fyne Ales head brewer Malcom Downie tells me. “It’s a low ABV, single-hop beer with a simple malt bill and big flavour profile that doesn’t shy away from showcasing some bitterness in the finish to make you come back for more.”

If you look toward any part of the UK where cask ale is drunk voluminously, there will be golden, pale and hoppy beers on the bar. The roots of the style in its modern context, however, can be traced to both the South Coast, and the South West. 

In his 2010 book Amber, Gold and Black, beer writer and historian Martyn Cornell states that in 1986 Golden Hill Brewery of Wiveliscombe, Somerset—now known as Exmoor Brewery—brewed a golden beer to celebrate its 1000th batch of Exmoor Ale. Forgoing the use of crystal malt to produce a more familiar, amber coloured beer, it used only Pipkin lager malt, and plenty of hops to give the beer an assertive flavour. It was given the name Exmoor Gold, and has been popular ever since.

Although this is likely the first example of the style as we know it today, Cornell writes that golden beers have existed since at least 1842, with the now familiar pale lager, Pilsner Urquell, born in the Czech city of Plzeň, claiming this as the year of its birth. Around the same time, pale beer styles including “East India Pale and Golden Ales” were being produced by William Saunder’s Brewery of Burton-upon-Trent. He also presents more evidence that golden hued ales existed before the arrival of Exmoor Gold. 

“While most British beers continued to be ruddy to dark, there were very pale-coloured bitters in England before 1986, notably Boddington’s Bitter from Manchester and the ‘straw-coloured’ Taddy Bitter from Samuel Smith of Tadcaster,” Cornell states.

Established the same year as Exmoor Gold was first brewed, Hop Back Brewery of Downton, Wiltshire could arguably be claimed as the brewery which really put Golden Ale on the map, despite not technically being its progenitor (although is sometimes considered as such). According to Cornell, its founder, John Gilbert, apparently opened the brewery to brew lagers, but instead made a name for his brewery in 1989 when he released a beer brewed with just pale malt, and English Challenger and East Kent Goldings hops. 

That beer’s name was Summer Lightning, and there was some intentionality behind its pale, golden hue and light, citrus bite—it was designed with some hope that it would appeal to the growing number of lager drinkers who were turning their backs on cask conditioned real ale. As such it was also encouraged to be served cooler, in part to make it more enticing as a summer drink.

In those pre-internet days, however, there wasn’t the same groundswell of hype as you’d find with a new, trendsetting style like, say, New England IPA over the previous decade. But, according to Cornell, by 1990 at least six breweries were producing beers that could be described as Golden Ales. The style was still undefined though, and in terms of competitions they were lumped in with Bitters of all shades. 

This changed in 2005, when CAMRA—the Campaign for Real Ale—produced a definition of the style, which it currently defines as: “Straw to gold in colour. Minimal or no malt should be present. Hop flavours are noticeable and may vary from traditional earthy and spicy English and German hops to citrusy New World hops.”

By the early 2000’s well over 100 breweries had created their own iteration of the style, with some eschewing British hops for more potently aromatic varieties from the US such as Cascade and Willamette. At this point Golden Ales had also begun to make their mark at the Campaign’s Great British Beer Festival, when in 2001 Oakham JHB and Summer Lightning took first and second place respectively at its annual Champion Beer of Britain awards. 

When the competition was won by Kelham Island Pale Rider in 2004, it was finally agreed that Golden Ale was deserving of its own category. The very next year Crouch Vale Brewers Gold would not only win the first award for the style, specifically, but it was also crowned Champion Beer of Britain. This truly cemented the popularity of the style among real ale drinkers of the past two decades.

By 1990 at least six breweries were producing beers that could be described as golden ales

But while the South of England can definitively lay claim to the style being brought into the drinkers' modern vernacular, there is proof aplenty that the style happily existed in the North West, definitionless as “pale bitter”, decades before Exmoor Gold and Summer Lightning existed. This becomes increasingly evident when you step into one of the North’s many pubs, and speak to those who have invested their time and energy in the conservation of real ale for most of their lives.

“It always seemed to me that the North West of England, from Manchester to the Lake District, was home to a distinct style of very pale, very bitter beers,” Cornell tells me. “The archetypal pale North West bitter beer, of course, was Boddington's bitter, which is described in the 1978 Good Beer Guide as ‘exceptionally bitter, with a pale straw colour’. This really was a golden bitter.”

Although modern Boddington’s—now owned and produced by the world’s largest brewing concern AB InBev—is amber in colour, and predominantly malt driven in flavour, drinkers old enough to remember the original speak fondly of its golden hue, and distinctive bitter taste. While the beer no longer exists in its original form, memories can be rekindled with a pint of Millstone Tiger Rut in traditional Manchester boozer, The Peveril of the Peak. A mere ten-minute walk away at The Marble Arch, you can enjoy Marble Manchester Bitter, which has a similar, raspy, citrus character, ensuring drinkers keep going back for more. 

“You could argue that Boddington’s really set the [Golden Ale] trend, but they weren’t really copied for many years, despite their cult status,” chair of Rochdale, Oldham and Bury CAMRA, and author of Tandleman’s Beer Blog, Peter Alexander, tells me. 

“Oddly if you try Exmoor Gold, you wonder where the hops are, and in general I feel Southern examples are trend following rather than trend setting. Golden beers need a decent amount of hopping,” he says. “Northern conditioning and sparkled dispense show these beers off much better than Southern presentation, in my view.”

As a city, Manchester never misses an opportunity to assert itself as trend-setter, as opposed to trend-chaser (an admirable attitude Alexander showcases inimitably). Although, in the case of Golden Ales it could be argued pretty concisely that the style had happily existed here in one shape or form long before it became popular in the South of England.

Boddington’s isn’t where the trail of evidence ends, either. According to the chair of Stockport and South Manchester CAMRA, and editor of Opening Times, John Clarke, long-defunct northwestern breweries including Wilson’s and Chester's were producing pale and bitter beers as far back as the 1950’s. This is particularly interesting, as it was around this time when amber coloured, slightly sweeter beers—which we know and love today as Bitter—were gaining popularity in other parts of England.

“If you look at primarily cask-focussed breweries of any size, I'd suggest that there's a greater preponderance of those making considerably good Golden Ales the further north/northwest you go,” Clarke tells me. “I'm sure there are numerous good examples from all round the UK but I get a gut feeling there are just more made here.”

Post lockdown, with pubs now open without the burden of restrictions on capacity, or bar service, cask beer feels like it’s having a moment. Although official data suggests that the sales of real ale are in double digit decline, the chatter online about styles such as Bitter, and Mild is almost deafening. The pubs of the North West are packed, too, with drinkers often choosing something on cask that’s golden in hue, voluminously hopped, and topped high with glass-clinging foam.  

Manchester never misses an opportunity to assert itself as trend-setter

It’s curious, though, why Golden Ale hasn’t been caught up in the same groundswell as those other, aforementioned styles. While many a modern brewer is now producing its take on “traditional” British cask ales, Golden Ale feels like a footnote; forever caught in a time pre-craft beer, which it was never quite hip enough to be a part of. London’s Boxcar Brewery is one modern brewery which has produced a pale beer deliberately labelled as a “Golden Ale” but its Dark Mild is far more popular.

Perhaps the reason why Golden Ale isn’t part of the current conversation around beer is because people have for a very long time enjoyed beers that are pale and hoppy, and have continually redefined them as something or other, depending on what particular phrase makes it sell. Pale Bitter, Golden Ale, Blonde Ale, Pale Ale, Session IPA. Essentially these are just different versions of the same thing; exceedingly light in colour, and heavy on the hops. Beers designed to deliver a big hitting combo of both flavour and refreshment, at a sensible ABV that indicates they are intended to be drunk in large quantities. 

It’s possible that we don’t need to talk about them in the same way as styles which have previously fallen out of fashion, because we’re actually talking about them all the time: everytime we lean over the bar and ask for a pint of something “pale ‘n’ ‘oppy.”

“We in the North take a view about Golden Ales, which is almost to assume they don’t need to be talked about as a genre,” Alexander says. “We tend to talk about individual beers and breweries without attributing a style, for example: Ossett White Rat and Fyne Ales Jarl. Yes, Golden Ales are perhaps the unsung heroes of brewing.

Share this article