A few years ago, as the local craft beer industry started to nudge into overdrive, golden ales looked like being one of the key drivers in its growth. Two Birds launched – then as a gypsy operation – with theirs in 2011, while many of the other big-hitters in what was a far smaller scene were to release one too: Nail's Golden Nail; Murray's Moon Boy; Bridge Road's Golden Ale; Hawthorn Golden Ale – a trophy-winner in the UK in 2014.
These were typically beers that took the English golden ale concept – easy-going on the hops, malt and bitterness front – and reimagined it for the Australian audience: higher carbonation, often a little fruitier, yet still stripped back and approachable.
There were some that predated these too – Red Hill's and 3 Ravens', for example, both of which were beers of Germanic inspiration (Kölsch and altbier) given a name that wouldn't scare Aussie beer drinkers. And there were more that followed, from the short-lived Boneyard Brewing's excellently dry and pithy Golden Ale to The Mayne Thing from Newstead Brewing, from Mountain Goat's annual Goldilocks (which was melded with fellow draught-only release Skipping Girl to become Summer Ale) to New England's Golden Ale complete with subtle Belgian twist, from Red Duck's 1851 and Hargreaves Hill's Golden Ale to the many more found on tap at breweries across the country.
Yet it's a rather different picture now. Nail's is long gone. Moon Boy is no more. Bridge Road and Hawthorn no longer release theirs. Red Hill's has been renamed Kölsch as part of their recent rebrand, anything from 3 Ravens with "golden" in its title is likely to be sour, barrel-aged and blended with wine grapes, and The Mayne Thing is now a golden lager.
At the same time, Two Birds' offering remains part of their core range while one of the later additions to the world of local golden ales has just received a boost, with Venom taking their already characterful Golden Ale into new territory as the Hazy Double Golden Ale, brewed with Carwyn Cellars and released last week.
Venom founder Joel Drysdale says they wanted to champion their flagship beer by scaling up the same malt and hop bills, with the decision to make it "hazy" coming from a desire to give the hop profile a better chance to shine while also giving the beer a modern spin.
“We’ve always treated [Golden Ale] as our hero beer, it’s really what’s made a bit of a name for us,” Joel says. “So we wanted to pay it some homage and bring it into 2019 as well.”
When Venom launched in 2015, while there were many golden ales on the market, he felt there was room for one that championed hops more than most. In his case, those hops were the Kiwi combination of Motueka and Nelson Sauvin.
“We just really felt it was a hole in a market that needed filling,” Joel says. “We had a great recipe for it and decided to roll with it, it was really where we thought we could get some traction.
“I think if we'd launched with a pale it would have made things pretty tough with the sheer number in the market.”
So, just four years on, why does he think his golden ale is one of a diminishing number?
“I think a lot of them probably got lost or were too similar to lagers," he says, adding that, in some cases, breweries haven't always known where their golden ale sat within their own range.
Ben Kraus, founder of Bridge Road Brewers and someone who has introduced and then cut a golden ale from his lineup in the past few years, has other theories. It was late in 2017 that he replaced their Golden Ale with Beechy Summer Ale, a beer that was more hop-forward, less bitter and had a leaner malt profile, a decision in part driven by a lack of interest in the style not only from drinkers but also the Bridge Road team.
“We went and bought every golden ale on the market and did a blind tasting of them – including ours,” Ben says. “And, although there was one or two preferences, the overwhelming feedback internally for us was that none of the beers were ones we’d be excited to drink.”
With craft beer selling at a premium price and the market so busy, Ben says it can be hard for an overly approachable style that doesn’t have a point of difference to stand out, hence, he believes, why we’ve seen the rise of beers that fit in what you might call the Pacific, XPA or summer ale categories: they’re lean, have limited bitterness, and champion tropical, highly-aromatic hops.
“I just think it’s really hard for craft beer to trade on something that isn’t very discernible and doesn’t have a point of difference or a strong 'something' about it,” he says. “I think that’s why we see some of these beers that do have that discernible tropical note.
“As well as beers going from being golden ales to summer ales, we’ve definitely seen that hop aroma increase.
“It’s not a bad thing, it’s obviously just realising that people are into that style of beer.”
Given Venom's Golden Ale has always possessed a distinctive tropical hop character and been among the leaner beers bearing the name, perhaps that's why it's enjoying greater longevity than most. Or maybe, as the new double version suggests, it's down to Joel's belief in the beer too.
“There’s a spot in the market for any well made, good tasting beer," he says. "It just depends on how you push it and how you promote it.”
“Our golden has a few stand out features but, at the heart of it, it’s a really nice and simple drinking beer with a bit of flavour.”