Article

American Blonde Ale

Oh where have all of the American blonde ales gone? Searching aisle after aisle of the Great American Beer Festival, I don’t see nearly the number that would have been present in years past. Or is this just my imagination? It seems everywhere I look, breweries are pouring “special” beers. Is it that few breweries consider their American-style blonde ale special anymore? Sure, it is still a popular style amongst beer drinkers, and a style that many pubs feel they must have available to please the average beer consumer, but now it elicits little excitement from most beer geeks. What a shame, because a well-crafted blonde ale, though not complex, can be a wonderful beer. Not every beer needs to have several different character malts, exotic fruits, and aging in a barrel to be special. A really well made beer is special by itself.

Of course, on the festival floor I see a number of beers that are pale in color and labeled as “blonde.” Everything from bocks to Belgians. And to some extent, commercial beer names do help define a style. I recall a conversation many years ago where a group of beer judges were discussing which commercial beers with “blonde” in their name were actually of the American blonde ale style. A few people only approved of a couple of the beers named. They had in their minds a very narrow range of characteristics, low esters, low hops, low bitterness, and low maltiness. They wanted them all to be clean, simple and balanced beers. Other people accepted a broader definition, allowing low to moderate levels for every component from bittering to esters. Like most issues, I found myself somewhere in the middle. My take on the vast majority of beer styles is that there is quite a bit of leeway in them. Sure, there are a few key aspects of each style that makes them unique and worth naming beers as belonging to that style, but if a beer is a little more hoppy or a little bit darker or has a little more of this or that, in most cases it can still be considered a good example. A beer out on the edges of a style can be as good or better of an example as a beer smack dab in the middle.

Yet you can’t just call any beer a blonde ale. For example, calling a dark lager “blonde ale” just doesn’t make sense, no matter what fancy name you give it. In many cases, the commercial brewers are just coming up with creative names and identifying the color of their beer. They’re not saying that the beer matches a particular style as defined by the BJCP. The BJCP blonde ale style is a bit of a catchall, including beers that are lower alcohol, lower hopped versions of American pale ales, and higher hopped versions of the Kölsch style. They are all pale beers with a relatively balanced and restrained approach. Many folks think of American pub-style blonde ale as in the middle of this description and that is my focus for the rest of this article.

Blonde ale should always be a smooth, easy to drink beer with a clean fermentation profile and just a touch of malt character. Held to the light, it is light yellow to deep gold in color and usually brilliant in clarity. I prefer my blonde ale without fruitiness. A little fruitiness is acceptable, but it should be no more than a hint. Hop character is generally low to moderate, as is the alcohol level (3.8 to 5.5% ABV). A very slight residual sweetness should be offset with just enough hop bitterness to keep things balanced. It should never be heavy nor should it be overly dry or thin. It should have a slightly dry or slightly sweet finish and a medium body. Balanced and easy drinking is the key. It is a very approachable beer for people new to craft beer.

Blonde ale recipes are usually simple, with a nice balance between simple malt flavors, bittering and a clean fermentation character, with all aspects of the beer in harmony. The fermentation character is clean and subtle, and the hop and malt character should be low key as well. You can find recipes out there with all sorts of additional grains and sugars, but a simple malt bill is best for this style. Choose high quality malt or malt extract and let the fine flavors of the base malt shine through via a clean fermentation. Most brewpubs make this as an ale, but it can also be done as a lager at slightly warmer than normal lager fermentation temperatures. If you want to add some late hop additions, keep them restrained and use only one hop variety to keep things simple and subtle.

I’m a big fan of rich malt character, but if you’re targeting the traditional center of this style, you really need to go clean and simple with the base malt. North American two-row malt is the standard, giving the beer that clean, subtle background malt character common to many fine American craft beers. If you want to push the boundary some, you can use domestic pale ale malt, for a slightly richer background malt character, giving the beer a light bready note. Again, this is the type of malt character you’ll find in many fine domestic craft brews. I would avoid British pale ale malt or continental Pilsener malt, as that adds just a bit too much base malt character. Extract brewers should use a light color malt extract. All-grain brewers can use a single infusion mash and should target a mash that will leave enough long chain sugars in the beer to help give the beer a middle of the road-type body. A temperature around 152 °F (67 °C) creates wort with a nice balance between fermentable and non-fermentable sugars.

The majority of the malt character of a blonde ale should really come from the base malt, not from specialty malts. You want the efforts of the maltster to shine through, not be masked by heavy flavors. Some folks like to use a touch of wheat, light color crystal, or some lightly toasted character malts and these can provide a welcome malt accent, but keep it simple. Try to hold yourself to no more than one specialty grain and keep the amount to no more than 10% of the grist. I prefer a touch of light colored crystal malt for a little background sweetness, at around 5% of the grain bill, but feel free to experiment with other grains of moderate color.

There is quite a bit of flexibility in the hops used for blonde ales. The bittering/malt balance can range from slightly sweet to slightly bitter, with most examples being evenly balanced. You want just enough hop bitterness to balance any residual malt sweetness, and it doesn’t take much. The bitterness to starting gravity (IBU divided by OG) ratio for this style usually ranges from a modest 0.3 to a bold 0.6. If you’re using a lower attenuating yeast or a lot of crystal malt, lean toward the higher end of the ratio. With a more attenuating yeast or fewer unfermentable sugars from specialty malts, target the lower end. Be aware that highly bitter or hoppy versions are going to be more like American-style pale ale than good blonde ale.

There isn’t a lot of hop flavor in blonde ale and hop aroma is often non-existent or very low. Of course, there are examples where a little hop flavor peeks through, but it is still restrained and tends to come from fairly mellow hop varieties, such as Willamette. Even though this is an American style of beer, avoid using really pungent American hop varieties, such as Centennial, Columbus or Simcoe. Even when used only for bittering, their flavor can be tasted with such a simple malt bill. Use caution if these are not the hop flavors you’re targeting.

Fermentation for blonde ale is straightforward. Like the majority of American-style ales, blonde ale most often has a clean profile, with very low to no fruity esters. A slight fruitiness can be welcome, as long as it isn’t excessive. It is important to not leave too much residual sweetness in this beer, as residual sweetness tends to have a negative impact on the drinkability. I prefer to use a clean, moderately attenuating yeast, such as Wyeast 1056 (American Ale) or White Labs WLP001 (California Ale). Other good options include White Labs WLP008 (East Coast Ale), White Labs WLP051 (California Ale V), or Wyeast 1272 (American Ale II). Make certain that you oxygenate the wort and pitch an appropriate amount of clean, healthy yeast for the batch you are brewing. This will help create that clean American pub-style profile in the beer. If using Wyeast 1056 or White Labs WLP001, ferment around 67 °F (19 °C), holding the temperature steady throughout fermentation. Other yeasts may require slightly warmer or cooler temperatures, depending on the strain, but 67 °F (19 °C) is a good ballpark to start in if you’re unsure. Holding the temperature steady is important to getting a proper level of attenuation and avoiding off-flavors, especially if you are making a bigger beer. Letting the beer go through large temperature swings can result in the yeast flocculating early or producing solventy and/or estery beers. If you wish, you can raise the temperature a few degrees near the end of fermentation to help the yeast clean up some of the intermediate compounds produced during fermentation, but with an appropriate pitch and proper temperature control, it shouldn’t be necessary.

So, even though blonde ale may not be trendy or might not seem special anymore, it never hurts to have one on hand when someone is searching for an easy-drinking pint.

Blondinebier

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.049 (12.2 °P)
FG = 1.011 (2.8 °P)
IBU = 20  SRM = 5  ABV = 5.0%

Ingredients

10 lb. (4.53 kg) Great Western North American 2-row malt (2 °L)
0.50 lb. (227 g) Great Western crystal malt (15 °L)
4.1 AAU Willamette hops (60 min) (0.82 oz./23 g of 5% alpha acids) or
substitute with Willamette, Glacier, U.S. Fuggle, U.S. Tettnang or
Styrian Golding hops
Wyeast 1056 (American Ale), White Labs WLP001 (California Ale) or
Fermentis Safale US-05 yeast

Step by Step

Mill the grains and dough-in targeting a mash of around 1.5 quarts of water to 1 pound of grain (a liquor-to-grist ratio of about 3:1 by weight) and a temperature of 152 °F (67 °C). Hold the mash at 152 °F (67 °C) until enzymatic conversion is complete. Infuse the mash with near boiling water while stirring or with a recirculating mash system raise the temperature to mash out at 168 °F (76 °C). Sparge slowly with 170 °F (77 °C) water, collecting wort until the pre-boil kettle volume is around 6.5 gallons (25 L) and the gravity is 1.038 (9.5 °P).

The total wort boil time is 90 minutes. Add the bittering hops with 60 minutes remaining in the boil. Add Irish moss or other kettle finings with 15 minutes left in the boil. Chill the wort to 67 °F (19 °C) and aerate thoroughly. The proper pitch rate is 9 grams of properly rehydrated dry yeast, two packages of liquid yeast or one package of liquid yeast in a 1.4 quart (1.3 L) starter.

Ferment at 67 °F (19 °C) until the yeast drops clear. At this temperature and with healthy yeast, fermentation should be complete in about one week. Allow the lees to settle and the brew to mature without pressure for another two days after fermentation appears finished. Rack to a keg and force carbonate or rack to a bottling bucket, add priming sugar, and bottle. Target a carbonation level of 2.5 volumes.

Blondinebier

(5 gallons/19 L, extract plus grains)
OG = 1.049 (12.1 °P)
FG = 1.011 (2.8 °P)
IBU = 20  SRM = 5  ABV = 5.0%

Ingredients

6.3 lb. (2.85 kg) Alexander’s North American light liquid malt extract (2 °L),
or substitute 5.1 lbs. (2.3 kg) fresh, light dried malt extract
0.50 lb. (227 g) Great Western crystal malt (15 °L)
4.1 AAU Willamette hops (60 min) (0.82 oz./23 g of 5% alpha acids)
or substitute with Willamette, Glacier, U.S. Fuggle, U.S. Tettnang,
or Styrian Golding hops
Wyeast 1056 (American Ale), White Labs WLP001 (California Ale) or
Fermentis Safale US-05 yeast

Step by Step

Mill or coarsely crack the specialty malt and place loosely in a grain bag. Avoid packing the grains too tightly in the bag, using more bags if needed. Steep the bag in about  0.5 gallons (~2 L) of water at roughly 170 °F (77 °C) for about 30 minutes. Lift the grain bag out of the steeping liquid and rinse with warm water. Allow the bags to drip into the kettle for a few minutes while you add the malt extract. Do not squeeze the bags. Add enough water to the steeping liquor and malt extract to make a pre-boil volume of 5.9 gallons (22.3 L) and a gravity of 1.042 (10.4 °P). Stir thoroughly to help dissolve the extract and bring to a boil.

Once the wort is boiling, add the bittering hops. The total wort boil time is one hour after adding the bittering hops. During that time add the Irish moss or other kettle finings at 15 minutes before shut-down.

Chill the wort to 67 °F (19 °C) and aerate thoroughly. The proper pitch rate is 9 grams of properly rehydrated dry yeast, 2 packages of liquid yeast or 1 package of liquid yeast in a 1.3 liter starter.

Ferment at 67 °F (19 °C) until the yeast drops clear. At this temperature and with healthy yeast, fermentation should be complete in about one week. Allow the lees to settle and the brew to mature without pressure for another two days after fermentation appears finished. Rack to a keg and force carbonate or rack to a bottling bucket, add priming sugar, and bottle. Target a carbonation level of 2.5 volumes.