Blonde women have ample stereotypes associated with them: ditzy, easy, gold diggers, superficial. Blonde beers, on the other hand, are so diverse that the only thing drinkers can agree on about them is their color.
The blonde term in the beer world commonly refers to pale beers. The UK, France, Belgium, and Brazil, in particular, use the term a lot to describe beer. If you had to generalize, like people all too often do with blonde women, you’d say a blonde beer has a light to moderate sweet malty aroma with a light yellow to deep gold color. Fruitiness can be there, but it’s on the low to moderate side and optional. The hop aroma is low to medium. Generally, blonde beers are made from all malt, but some of the cheaper operators use only 25% malt in combination with sugar adjuncts — corn, rice, you know what we mean here. The alcohol content ranges from 4% to 5%.
Confusion with pilsners is common and with excellent reason. Pilsners are a pale to deep golden color, like blondes. And pilsners fall between the 4% to 5% abv range. The undiscerning taster may think they taste alike.
So what the hell is the difference? How can serious beer connoisseurs finally get the facts straight once and for all?
The easiest way to distinguish the two – in most cases, but not all – is the fact that blonde beers are, nearly all of the time, blonde ales. They’re made with the typical top-fermenting ale yeast and warm conditioned like any other type of ale. Pilsners are a subtype of lagers. They’re made with bottom fermenting yeasts and cold conditioned for longer periods of time.
But that common distinction doesn’t always hold. While blonde ales are, most of the time, made with a clean American, lightly fruity English, or a Kölsch yeast, there’s no legal statute that dictates they must always be. Some versions really are made with lager yeast and cold-conditioned. Belgian blondes can be made with pilsner malts.
Other variations of blondes can have honey, fruit, or spices added. The additional flavors should be background flavors though. If the fruits or spices were front and center, the beer would probably be classified as a different style for marketing purposes. A thirsty beer drinker craving a typical blonde ale might be peeved to taste strawberry and coriander when the style doesn’t call for it.
These additional flourishes and wider leeway in the manufacture are what set blondes apart from blonde (i.e. pilsner) lager types. Pilsners would tend to have more of a distinct hop aroma and flavor, and you wouldn’t find anything from grape seeds to turtle beans added to the brew.
There’s a deeper and more interesting reason while blonde ales and pilsners seem to have so much in common. Blonde ales were the ‘bait and switch’ used by (initially) American craft brewers to win over the industrial beer drinking public.
If you go from the pre-1980’s in the USA all the way back to the period right after the Second World War, watery lagers based on the pilsner style, all manufactured by industrial brewers, were the mainstream.
When craft brewing first became a viable industry, brewers would have needed to create something similar enough but, at the same time, different in order to lure in the Bud, Coors, and Miller tipplers. Most of the new brewers, such as the Boston Beer Company (makers of Samuel Adams), first hit the market with lagers, which makes sense, as there was already a proven market for that style. Blonde ales were the natural next step for born-and-bred lager louts.
So the blonde ale style as we know it today is really an American innovation showing up sometime in the mid-1980’s. It’s hard to say exactly when in hindsight. We do know that Hop Back Brewery in the UK introduced a blonde ale called Summer Lightning in 1989. This spawned numerous imitators and launched a UK blonde style, but Hop Back was, by no means, the first blonde on the market. Now, as a recognizable style, worldwide brewers are in on the blonde act, some of them quite old and established. Duvel, founded in 1871, makes a blonde today. So does Leffe. And so does Guinness, though theirs is a lager. Which makes it all too easy to think that this is a centuries old European style when it really isn’t.
That is not to say that the style doesn’t owe its roots to centuries old traditions. You could say that the blonde ale style has a mixed heritage, borrowing brewing techniques and know how from both European pale ales and Kolsches. And, indeed, to this very day, some of the blonde ale manufacturers push one end of the spectrum over the other. American West coast breweries, like the ample number in Oregon, stand in the more assertive pale ale camp. No shocking surprise there. One could almost say pale ales were the root of the Pacific Northwest brewery movement. Breweries in Europe seem to stick more with the light Kolsch style already prevalent there. With the proliferation of craft breweries in every nook and cranny of the globe nowadays, there are likely more exceptions to this than rules.
Rod Stewart, the rocker, loves blondes and is rumored to have slept with more than a thousand. There’s no pressing need to sample that many or even sleep with them. Says Rocker Rod, “The most memorable is always the current one. The rest just merge into a sea of blondes.” A few dozen, enjoyed right at the bar, should be more than satisfactory.