Dean McGuinness, the Beer Messiah, reviews Kona Big Wave Golden Ale and Wold Gold
Today, we are making things as straightforward as we can. Sometimes beer styles are called by names that obscure the essence of the style (for example, a ‘Bitter’ is an English Pale Ale). To-day we are tasting Golden Ales – in other words, ales that are golden in colour. The two beers that we have showcase the two ends of the spectrum for this style – American Golden Ale (which features American hops) and English Golden Ale (which features English hops).
Our two beers for today are Kona Big Wave Golden Ale and Wold Gold from Wold Top Brewery.
Golden Ale –
Golden Ales are a relatively new style – emerging notably in the 1980’s, and developing to this point in the years before this. It is useful to have a look at where they have grown out of to understand what the style tries to achieve.
Colour in beer comes primarily from the malt that is used in brewing the beer. The paler the malt, the paler the colour of the beer. Using a relatively small amount of dark coloured malt can significantly darken the colour of the beer – so, a stout, for example, is brewed with a base of pale malts (which provide a foundation of sugars for fermentation) and a percentage of very dark coloured malts (which contribute to the sugars, but are the key ingredients responsible for the dark malt flavours and the colour of the style). This to say that it is relatively easy to get dark colours in beer, and that keeping dark colours out of beer takes a little bit more.
Malted barley is made using a process that involves a three of four stage process. The key stages are – steeping the barley to moisten it and trigger the process that would normally be started when the barley kernel is planted, germinating, which is the process during which the starch that is necessary as the sugar source for brewing is developed in the barley kernel, and kilning – a heating process that stops the germinating process. Malted barley can also be stewed or roasted – two further processes that involve heating and also darken the barley.
Going back centuries ago, the last stage(s) of this process – the stages that involved heating – were not as controlled as they are today. Today, with modern technology, malted barley can be kilned very gently, resulting in malted barley that is very light in colour. This was one of the foundations for the lager revolution – pale, bright golden beers were appealing to the eye, and even though they were significantly lower in flavour, their refreshing character and heavy advertising caused them to become popular.
Coming back to the pale ale style – if we look at this style back in history, the term ‘pale’ was different from what we would know it as now. Pale could stretch as far as amber – indeed dark amber was not unusual. Even when the craft brewing revolution started in the U.S. (in the 1980’s) it was more normal for a pale ale to be amber in colour than pale or straw golden. The American craft brewers probably wanted to differentiate their offering from the bland lagers on offer in the U.S., and having a style that was both ‘pale’ but also allowed them to have some depth of colour in the beer gave them the best of both worlds.
In countries like the U.K., with a very solid brewing tradition that found itself being challenged by the lager revolution, some brewers opted to take on a more ‘head-on’ approach to competition. Rather than trying to flank the lagers in the market by brewing a beer with more flavour and more distinctive character, some brewers in the U.K. decided to brew ales that were more favourably comparable with lagers. While these golden ales had ale character (typically fruity flavours), and more hop character (from classic English hops such as EKG and Fuggles), they were brewed to have the classic straw gold colour that one associated with lagers that had been growing in popularity through the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. Brewing a beer with refreshing character which still had its foundations in more traditional English pale ales allowed brewers to bridge a divide between their ‘older’ traditional beers and the ‘younger’ lagers in the market.
Developments in the U.S. took a slightly different track to end up in a similar final position. While U.S. craft brewers continued through the ‘80’s to move their beers away from mainstream by brewing beers that were ever more flavourful and challenging, over time this was taken to such an extreme that many U.S. brewers started to realise that extremes of flavour can be – put simply – too extreme. A movement has been in evidence in the last decade among U.S. brewers to bring beers to more accessible levels. U.S. craft brewers have come to understand that some beers can be sophisticated and flavourful (without having to overwhelm the drinker), and that this is just as valid as a beer being characterful and flavourful. This desire to have excellent tasting beers that could be ‘everyday’ beers fitted perfectly with the idea of the Golden Ale, and it is no surprise that this style became adopted by a number of U.S. brewers as a result.
Big Wave Golden Ale –
Beer Style - (American) Golden Ale
Alcohol by Volume - 4.4% a.b.v.
Brewed by - Kona Brewing Company
Brewed in - Hawaii, U.S.A.
If you are going to have a bright, refreshing golden ale that enjoys the character of tropical and citrus fruits that can be associated with many American hop varietals, brewing this beer in Hawaii just seems to make sense. Kona Brewing Company was established by Cameron Healy and his son Spoon Khalsa (I suspect that one of those must have some Irish heritage – up to you to decide which one!). With a very successful brewpub as its origins, it has grown quickly over the few decades since it was established in the 1990’s to become one of the most recognised of the craft beers in the U.S.
Big Wave Golden Ale is unashamedly 4.4% in strength – a beer designed to be quaffed and enjoyed. It has a superbly refreshing character – and normally when I see this terminology being used to describe a beer (‘refreshing’, ‘easy drinking’, ‘quaffable’) I would assume that it means that there is not that much other flavour to talk about in the beer. Not so with Big Wave.
The base of malt character in the beer is what you would expect in a beer that is this pale in colour – in the case of Big Wave, it comes through as wheat cracker, or wheat bread crust, and it provides the perfect foundation for the hop flavours that it supports. This is truly where the delight in this beer shines through. Lime citrus is the immediate fruit flavour that is in evidence from the hops, and this combines with tropical fruits - Papaya, mango, pineapple. ‘Juicy’ is possibly the best was to describe this beer – it is light and thirst quenching, but it also combines the array of flavours that one would expect from a fruit punch. On tasting this beer, one comment was that it was reminiscent of Lilt – the pineapple and grapefruit soft drink. On a second tasting, where we saw that this was coming from was the combination of pineapply and lime – lime giving an acidic citric character that is deliciously refreshing, but not as bitter as the flavour that one would associate with grapefruit.
A truly delicious example of an American Golden Ale.
Beer Style - (English) Golden Ale
Alcohol by Volume - 4.8% a.b.v.
Brewed by - Wold Top Brewing Company
Brewed in - Yorkshire Wolds, England.
The key difference between an English Golden Ale and an American Golden Ale is in the hops. Both styles have a base of light malt character, and both styles have the potential to exhibit a significant amount of fruit flavour from the ale fermentation, but the hop character that one associates with English hops is quite different from that associated with American hops. In the case of Wold Gold, there is a further slight twist in the hop character, which we will come back to below.
The foundation of malt flavour in this beer gives a flavour of soft honey which combines with the soft fruit flavours that come through from the fermentation. Initially, these flavours come through as apple and pear, but as the beer warms up a little, peach and stone fruit flavours develop some more. The hops used in this beer are Goldings and Styrian Goldings – giving an earthy and slightly spicy character.
When it comes to English hops, East Kent Goldings and Fuggles are two of the varieties that would spring to mind for a number of people. Styrian Goldings is an interesting hop. While associated with Eastern Europe (Slovenia), when it was named it was assumed that it was related to other Eastern European hop varieties. Analysis of its parentage through DNA testing has established that it does, actually comes from Fuggles. However, when a variety of hop is grown in another country, it can often pick up character associated with that region.
The combination of hop character in this beer joins earthly English hops with a subtle spice character. While this spice character is ‘hot’ (like chilli spice) it is relatively subtle, and nicely balances the fermentation fruit flavour. Wold Top Brewery seems to have an excellent skill to build flavour into a beer even when it is relatively low in a.b.v. With some of their other beers that are below 4% in a.b.v., they taste as a beer would taste if it was 4.5% to 5.0%. They have an added advantage with Wold Gold – already at 4.8%, it is above what would be considered ‘average’ for a beer in Ireland, and ironically, this gives the brewery the chance to have flavour in the beer, but the need to balance this with the goal of having a refreshing character that one would associate with a Golden Ale. Overall, Wold Gold is a light, clean beer that is refreshing but has the more solid foundations that one would associate with an ale when comparing it to a lager.