Doing a Double Take on Blonde Ales

Photo by Kyle Jacobson

Every beer drinker has had a Blonde Ale. Heck, odds are it was one of the first beers they ever tasted. But if you ask anyone who drinks a lot of microbrews what their first Blonde Ale was, youll most likely receive little more than a shrug. Why? Is the style so bland, so unexciting that it deserves not even the hint of a nod? Perhaps brewers are to blame for treating the style as little more than something for the patron who only drinks Bud or Miller. Or maybe its time for the beer drinker to revisit the style.

Theres actually a black-haired guy from New Jersey that reminds me of a Blonde Ale: Bruce Springsteen, The Boss. Lets start with the first taste. For some, its like the first time hearing Born to Run or Born in the U.S.A. Its catchy. You hear it over and over on the radio; it starts buzzing in your head at work and school; and when youre taking it in, theres little reason to want anything else. Like a Blonde Ale, it goes down smooth.

One day you go to a concert, and Bruce does something different. He gets up on stage and starts talking about Bob Dylan. This song Im going to sing was written at a moment in our countrys history when peoples yearning for a more open and just society exploded. Bob Dylan had the courage to stand in that fire, and he caught the sound of that explosion. This song remains as a beautiful call to arms. The meaning of this song and the echo of that explosion live on in the struggle for social justice in America that continues so fiercely today. He then goes into Dylans The Times They Are a-Changin, and you get sucked in. The next thing you know, youre buying up Bob Dylan albums, then Tom Waits, then some obscure Johnny Cash, and you start blasting Woody Guthrie to let everyone know theres some potent music from not so long ago that speaks to people today. These are the IPAs, the Barrel-Aged Stouts, and the Belgian Dubbels.

Photograph by Kyle Jacobson

Then you go back to Bruce Springsteen, and its different. Born in the U.S.A. I was born in the U.S.A. The strongest voice, repeating a patriotic creed, drilling it into your head, has suddenly shown another side of itself. Got in a little hometown jam, so they put a rifle in my hand, sent me off to a foreign land to go and kill the yellow man. It sounds like this song is about a government taking advantage of its people. Like saying born in the U.S.A. is a proclamation of fate to come to those born in the U.S.A. Not to belittle The Boss message, but, for the beer drinker, that second look is the respect Blonde Ales deserve.

Blonde Ales, very much an umbrella term for beers with typically low ABV, light bitter notes, and a golden hue, are relatively new to the beer world. In 1986, just two years after the release of Bruce Springsteens Born in the U.S.A. album, the Blonde Ale was born in Somerset Brewery at Wiveliscombe, England. Its creation was in response to Yellow Lagers starting to dominate the market, and it succeeded in becoming one of the most popular styles in the United Kingdom and the United States. 1

So why give something so admittedly simple extra attention? Ben Spoehr at Next Door Brewing shared his thoughts. The Blonde Ales, those lighter styles, they dont have anything to hide behind. If you have a big Barrel-Aged Stout, its easy to drop vanilla in there and kinda cover up all the faults or flaws you might have. Or for a really hoppy beer, just throws hops at it late addition and youll have a huge addition that might cover up some of those flaws. Blonde Ales are the acoustic beer. The struggle to achieve balance in something so naked is like a practiced sculptor taking on the human formthe mistakes are going to scream, and anything unexpected, like a scar or a wart, will become a focal point.

As I talk with Ben, he pours me a glass of Next Doors Bubbler (Blonde American Ale). The head was white and bubbly, the body clear and golden, but what hit me was the aroma. So aware of itself. It promised a hint of bitterness before a faint, refreshing malt that maybe had the slightest citrus note if I wanted it. And it finished clean as youd expect. Theres nothing to hide behind. If there was an off note in that aroma, if there was too much diacetyl, youd be able to pick it up right away. But to me its just crisp, its clean, its widely palatable. This is my go-to pizza beer because its so great. I love enjoying a couple of these as Im watching the Packer game.

No argument there, Ben.

Photograph by Kyle Jacobson

Going back to Blonde Ale being an umbrella term, theres a reason I wanted to interview someone at Next Door Brewing for this article: their pineapple blonde kettle sour, Mutha Pucka. Not only does it demonstrate that one Blonde need not fight to taste like another, but it presents the breadth of flavor this style can embrace. By opting to kettle sour, Next Door helps to ensure that they can control the tartness to give some of the other flavors and aromas a bit of the spotlight.

If it isnt hammered into your head by now, the key to a great beer is balance, and it takes some firsthand funk knowledge to really start understanding balance. When you go back to a Blonde Ale, start looking for the key changes, the subtle off-beat note, and allow all sense of taste to break a pop song into its parts. The essence of the experience.

I might be a bit of a Romantic here, but I one day dream of a world where patrons enter a brewery and, instead of asking, What does your IPA taste like, opt to challenge the brewery with, Why should I drink your Blonde Ale and not someone elses?

We love you, Madison. Thank you. Good night.

Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.