Why Brewers Are Embracing Blonde Ales - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Why Brewers Are Embracing Blonde Ales

blonde ales
Photo by Max Kelly.

During its foundational era, Real Ale Brewing released beers at a pace a snail could appreciate. Full Moon Pale Rye Ale and Brewhouse Brown Ale debuted in 1996, leisurely chased by Rio Blanco Pale Ale in 1998. The Blanco, Texas, brewery then cranked its tempo, adding a fourth year-round beer and a single annual release in 2002.

President Brad Farbstein was good friends with the founder of Austin bicycle company Firemans Texas Cruzer. They’d ride bikes and drink beer, a synergy the small businesses decided to embrace. “We thought it would be cool for a beer to promote his bikes, and when people rode his bikes they could get our beer,” Farbstein says.

The collaboration would align with outdoor pursuits and warm weather, via an agreeable sipper that could lure Texans into Real Ale’s flavorful fold. Back then in Texas, “most bars had three taps, and they were Bud, Miller and Coors,” Farbstein recalls. “If they were crazy and off the edge, they’d put Shiner Bock on.”

Real Ale formulated a fairly straightforward blonde ale, unfiltered and honey-scented, smoothly refreshing and supremely flavorful. “We tried not to simplify it or dumb it down,” Farbstein says. “It’s truly a craft blonde ale.”

While they may never generate click-bait headlines, breweries are betting on blondes as an everyman, everyday offering.

The beer tickled locals’ fancy, and it continues to do so, accounting for more than 50 percent of Real Ale’s annual sales. That’s doubly impressive considering that the brewery’s ballooned portfolio encompasses imperial stouts and long-fermented sours—beers that generate buzz, but don’t contribute to the bottom line. “We can’t operate our brewery and remain profitable by making occasion beers,” he says. “We don’t want people buying a beer and sitting on it for a year ’til there’s some special occasion to drink it. We want to make beers that people are drinking on regular occasions.”

At most American brewpubs in the early ’90s you ordered a pint by consulting a color wheel. There were red ales and black stouts, blonde beers as radiant as summer sunshine. Tint tipped drinkers to flavor. The visual shortcut was essential in an era short on education. As the years disappeared and beer accelerated in popularity and complexity, blonde and golden ales seemed as antiquated as eight-tracks, especially in the aggressive face of double IPAs and barrel-aged everything.

blonde ales
Firemans #4 is Real Ale Brewing’s flagship blonde ale. | Photo by Max Kelly.

Read enough stories and you might believe that every Dick and Jane is insane for IPAs. Fact is, glug-a-lug lagers still account for beer sales’ lion’s share. Elevating ABV and tossing, say, sassafras and sumac into a brew kettle isn’t always the recipe for building a customer base. The secret is cooking ales that unite, not divide, and that’s a role ready-made for blondes. “If you throw an offering of beer out to 100 people, average citizens and beer geeks included, almost everyone will be fine drinking a blonde beer,” says Stephen Hale, a Schlafly Beer founding brewer. “Almost no one is going to turn down a well-made blonde ale or lager.”

While they may never generate click-bait headlines, breweries are betting on blondes as an everyman, everyday offering. In January, San Diego’s IPA-centric Green Flash Brewing Co. unleashed GFB Blonde Ale, while Florida’s Funky Buddha Brewery debuted Pineapple Beach. Firestone Walker Brewing has found such success with their 805 blonde ale—primarily sold in California—that it now accounts for nearly 60 percent of the brewery’s annual production. Schlafly sees the blonde ale as an experimental platform, spiking Double Bean Blonde with coffee and chocolate, and Armadillo Ale Works puts mesquite beans in Honey Please.

Don’t Say a Word

Founding a brewery with a blonde-ale focus is a bit like launching a wedding cover band. Both are crowd-pleasers, but there’s a slight stigma. Shouldn’t you be doing something a bit more, well, original?

Green Flash has a stable of conversation-starters like Palate Wrecker Imperial IPA and piquant Dia de los Serranos Double Stout. Take a sip, and you can’t not comment. “Green Flash centers around the event, where beer is the event,” says CEO Mike Hinkley, a co-owner. “We hadn’t branched into occasions where the beer wasn’t the center of the event, where the beer accompanied the event.” He wanted Green Flash to create the kind of beer crammed into a cooler, harking back to days when the question wasn’t, “What kind of beer?” but rather, “Want another one?”

“That’s what GFB means to us,” Hinkley says of his blonde ale. It’s teensy in ABV and packing a pleasant orange-peel scent, tasty without demanding taste buds’ total attention. Unlike the brewery’s barrel-aged sours and bittered-up double IPAs, GFB rides shotgun to good times instead of steering the conversation. “You can have quality, flavorful beer that maybe takes itself a little less seriously,” he says.

blonde ales
Funky Buddha’s Pineapple Beach is an easy drinking departure from the brewery’s other fanciful beers. | Photo by Graciela Cattarossi.

Few American breweries are as respected as Firestone Walker. Brewmaster Matt Brynildson slays every style, from pilsners to IPAs, barley wines, oatmeal stouts and beyond. “805 is none of those things,” co-founder David Walker says of the brewery’s best-selling blonde. It stemmed from other larger international breweries trademarking area codes. “We grabbed our own and brewed a beer for local bars to celebrate,” Walker says.

The 805 region is a complex stew of cattle ranchers and farmers, cowboys and surfers, musicians and motorcycle riders living amid an “abundance of natural beauty fading into the Pacific,” Walker says. What better to bring them together than a clean, elegant blonde ale? “Everyone who drinks it finds the experience pleasing,” Walker says.

Firestone intended to only sell 805 within the current and historic confines of the area code surrounding their Paso Robles brewery. Growth spread organically as fans bootlegged the beer as far away as Arizona and Nevada, and within two and a half years of its 2013 launch, 805 rose atop Firestone’s sales charts. Last year, Firestone started selling its local handshake in three additional states, including Texas, testament to the power of doing one beer, and doing it well. “805 is a singular beer with no deviation or intent to change or capitalize on it with ‘innovation,’ ” Walker says.

Founding a brewery with a blonde-ale focus is a bit like launching a wedding cover band. Both are crowd-pleasers, but there’s a slight stigma.

At their best, blonde ales are torchbearers of balance and subtlety. Kona Brewing Big Wave Golden Ale, Southern Star Brewing Bombshell Blonde Ale and Ska Brewing True Blonde Ale are equally comfortable alongside salads, baseball games and afternoons spent mowing the lawn. It’s tough to hate a blonde beer. That is, if you can convince someone to try one.

During the early ’90s, Boston’s Harpoon Brewery positioned Golden Lager as bait to lure in macro-lager drinkers. Few bit. “They weren’t unhappy with what they were drinking,” recalls Harpoon CEO Dan Kenary, who notes the beer backfired on another front: “Craft was not attracting the kind of drinkers looking for yellow, golden ales. They were looking for beer that was darker, heavier and more interesting.”

Tastes mature over time. Beers that seemed boring become beautiful, sparklers as stunning as fireworks. Last year, Harpoon felt the market was ready for the golden Sweet Spot. “There’s a place for balance and subtlety in the mix of flavors,” Kenary says, later adding, “When you think of these styles, it should be right in our wheelhouse as craft brewers.”

blonde ales
Funky Buddha brand director John Linn says “Just because it’s a light beer and something you drink when it’s hot out doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing.” | Photo by Graciela Cattarossi.

Twist It Up

The blonde ale’s beauty is that it quenches without torturing tongues, a beer’s beer without being bland. Its neutrality also appeals to brewers seeking their next great taste trip. Victory Brewing gooses Summer Love Ale with hops both European and American, giving the golden ale an earthy snap of lemon and pine. New Belgium Brewing fills Dayblazer Easygoing Ale with citrusy Cascade hops. And Dogfish Head’s latest Beer to Drink Music To is a self-professed “tropical blonde” kissed with hibiscus and kiwi juice.

Florida’s Funky Buddha has earned its reputation on twisting beer styles like a pretzel, creating culinary concoctions such as French Toast Double Brown, Maple Bacon Coffee Porter and Lemon Meringue Pie blonde. Any intrepid drinker will try the beers once. Twice? Maybe not. “We saw that our customer base was hungry for beers they could drink a few of,” says brand director John Linn.

Last summer, Funky Buddha held a customer contest in its tasting room to select its next year-round beer. The contestants included a porter, a raspberry hefeweizen and Pineapple Beach blonde, which won handily, graduating to the production line in January. “Just because it’s a light beer and something you drink when it’s hot out doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing,” Linn says. Response has been strong, with customers clamoring for the beer in cans. “There’s a certain point in drinking craft beer where you go full circle and grow to appreciate a very crisp, clean beer and just enjoy drinking a beer, not necessarily for a flavor ride.”

Another burgeoning variant is the coffee blonde. Goose Island Beer’s Fulton St. Blend is flavored with Intelligentsia coffee, and Odd Side Ales brews Bean Flicker Blonde. Schlafly saw a blonde ale as the perfect neutral platform to devise the deceptive Double Bean. After the hazy flaxen ale finishes fermentation, Schlafly rests Double Bean on Ghanaian cocoa nibs before adding Tanzanian cold-brew coffee, creating a chocolaty eye-opener. “One of our sales reps has referred to this beer as a Jedi mind trick,” Hale says.

Instead of adjuncts, other brewers inoculate blondes with bacteria and wild yeast. Odell Brewing aged its Crossover Sour Blonde in Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc barrels, and Good People Brewing’s Funk Farm Sour Blonde was rested in red-wine barrels then fruited with blackberries and raspberries. “A blonde ale is a really good base for a sour beer,” says Hi-Wire Brewing head specialty brewer Johnathan Parks. “Since it’s so simple, it’s really the fermentation character and barrel-aging that drive the flavor.” To date, the Asheville, North Carolina, brewery has released Sour Blonde Ale, marinated in red-wine barrels, and will soon uncork a blackberry-packed variant. “It’s neon-purple,” Parks says, highlighting a blonde’s ability to spotlight hue, another alluring element. “You drink with your eyes first.”

The Golden Bridge

American brewing broadly swirls around two oppositional storylines. Craft and independent brewers make beer teeming with flavor. Conglomerates often formulate beer lightly sprinkled with hops. It’s a battle of artisan versus the machine, a feel-good yarn that often omits one massive fact: Many millions love light, low-ABV beers.

Breweries are playing ball in this park with session IPAs and, increasingly, pilsners, beer styles with maybe too much hop pop for the average imbiber. Enter the blonde ale, craft’s latest bridge for crossing into the mainstream. It’s a smart move that also tosses a kink into breweries’ narrative thread. “In some regard, it goes back to this anxiety and trepidation we probably all have in the craft-beer community about being different from the traditional beer of the past,” says Funky Buddha’s Linn. “How do we differentiate from the domestic lager? Can we take that back from them?”

blonde ales
Photo by Max Kelly.

And will multinational brewers let that happen? In 2014, Guinness released Blonde American Lager, its attempt to plant a flag in fertile ground. (It’s also building a stateside brewery in Maryland.) “On the spectrum between light lager and barrel-aged imperial stout, we see a lot of growth happening right in the middle—tasty beers that people are happy to drink at an outdoor barbecue in the summer,” says brand director Emma Giles. Blonde American Lager is fermented with the brewery’s workhorse stout yeast, then cold-conditioned for crispness. It’s not exactly a lager, but words are freighted with meaning. “Most people associate the word ‘ale’ with dark, heavy beers,” she says. “The vast majority of beer drinkers would call it a lager, so that’s what we called it.”

No matter the brewing process, blondes are part of the larger pendulum swinging back to sessionable beers. “We’ve always thought, ‘Hey, it’s only a matter of time before golden ales or blonde ales start to catch on,’ ” says Harpoon’s Kenary. “They can be crossover beers with a lot of people.”

Blondes can also provide brewers with an economic safety net that enables tinkering and taking chances. “Firemans drives the brewery and lets us get experimental and drive innovation,” says Real Ale’s Farbstein. His funked-up Mysterium Verum beers don’t need to turn an immediate dime, so they’re permitted to undergo complex, multi-year barrel souring.

He believes Firemans is poised for another 15 years of growth, a bellwether to weather the fickle consumer storms, a beer everyone can grasp. Mostly. The government rejected Firemans #4’s original label, mystified by the numerical significance. “The lady was like, ‘I need you to explain what No. 4 means,’ ” Farbstein recalls. “I said, ‘Well, it’s the number between three and five.’ There was dead silence on the phone for what seemed like a decade but was just 30 seconds. She said, ‘Okay, sounds good to me,’ and we got our label approval the next week.”

Sometimes even the simplest beers require a simple explanation.

For 10 blonde ales to seek out now, see recommendations here.

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