Golden Ale is a Thing. Why?

One of the most interesting phenomena in American beer right now is the inexplicable success of golden ales. It's one of the least-examined, too, probably because it's absolutely mystifying. It all started about five years ago, when Firestone Walker released a nondescript little 4.7% golden ale called 805 for the California market. I was too besotted by Pivo Pils, released just about the same time, to notice. By 2015, it accounted for half of Firestone Walker's considerable sales. That year, it was the 24th-largest craft brand in the country--and it was still only sold in California. In 2016, it was one of the brightest stars in a dimming sky, with 74% growth--and had become the 15th largest craft brand.

805 has become a cultural phenomenon from the Central Coast through Southern California. It’s something we didn’t anticipate, and in many ways it’s out of our hands.
— David Walker, Firestone Waker

Just this morning in Washington DC, Bart Watson of the Brewers Association gave a state-of-the-industry presentation and presented this slide (hat tip Focus on the Beer):

What on earth is going on? Golden ales are by even the most generous standards a modest style. Invented by small breweries in the 1980s to lure mass market lager-drinkers to their bolder offerings, they were a kind of bridge beer--familiar enough to the Bud drinker to be acceptable, but different enough to excite interest. That was the theory, anyway. In practice, goldens were neither fish nor fowl. They were too boring to interest crafty drinkers and didn't incline Hamm's drinkers to trade in their 30-packs. Most of us had given up the style for dead (without regret) by the turn of the century.

We have thankfully edged off the days of uber-extreme monsters and drinkers are returning to sessionable, balanced beers. Some of the best beer styles have been overlooked because they don't pack the deadly heat of triple IPAs and barrel-aged stouts. But golden ales? I absolutely love me some Belgian table beer and helles--but even I think golden ales are pretty boring. We don't get 805 in Oregon (or if we do, it's rare enough I haven't stumbled across it), so I can't speak to that particular beer. But it's not like it's setting the beer cognoscenti on fire. As a category, they are built to be inoffensive, with little in the way of malt, yeast, or hop to add interest. They are crisply effervescent, I'll give them that.

From a brewery's perspective, this is an excellent development. Golden ales are simple to make, cheap, and they age well. Putting them into the marketplace doesn't pose the challenge of expensive, quickly-fading IPAs. Right on cue, we have a gold rush to goldens. New Belgium just released Dayblazer Easygoing Ale, a few days ago Iron Hill announced the release of Cannibal Golden, and just yesterday I got a press release from Full Sail announcing Exit 63 Golden Ale. (Kudos, I guess, to Full Sail for slavishly reproducing the 805 magic, down to the local, numerical name.)

I would expect to see a lot more golden ales before this trend burns itself out. (I would also expect to see this trend burn itself out.) So far, the only golden that's selling is Firestone Walker's, and it's not clear to me (or anyone, including the folks at Firestone Walker) why it's selling so well. Even if 805 manages to avoid the ultimate declines other popular mass market craft brands have seen in the last couple years, I have no confidence that people are clambering for a beer style with so little to offer. Neither, however, can I think of a reason why 805 has become this smash hit.

Only time will truly tell. Stay tuned--