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Excellence in the Sublime: Brewing Blonde Ale with MadeWest

MadeWest Brewing in Ventura, California, won GABF gold in 2018 and silver in 2019 for its flagship blonde ale, Standard. Mike Morrison, cofounder and head brewer, sketches out its origins and lays out the schematics of this extraordinary ordinary beer.

Mike Morrison Jun 1, 2021 - 7 min read

Excellence in the Sublime: Brewing Blonde Ale with MadeWest Primary Image

Photo: Courtesy MadeWest Brewing

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Before opening in 2016, we knew we wanted to launch with a light, approachable, crushable beer that anyone could enjoy. We wanted this to be a gateway beer, but also one that appeals to those who ask for the lightest beer on the menu—we knew that would be a big thing in our town. We knew that the average Ventura beer drinker would assume that nothing is going to please their palate like Coors or Bud Light.

Being a hophead brewer, I don’t think I was ever anti-blonde—but I got a bit hung up on wanting that beer to be a pilsner. When we launched in 2016, we had three core beers. Stone Distributing was ready to add us to their portfolio, based on my homebrew and them wanting to rep a local brand in the area. (I was just crossing my fingers that my 10-gallon recipes scaled up to 30 barrels were going to resemble the beers they were stoked about.) I knew we weren’t going to be able to tie up our four 60-barrel tanks with a lager. So, to me, the next best thing was turning that pils into an ale.

So, we played with how cold we could ferment that beer, to get the cleanest, crispest version of an ale, but with a German-ish pilsner hop profile and a prominent malt character that finished dry and refreshing.

This actually posed issues: What style was Standard? For the tasting room and the can language, we settled on “light ale.” That was the audience that we felt would most likely be looking for this beer, as no one was going to know what a “standard” was until the brand created a name for itself. I was concerned that a blonde might turn away the intended audience; many drinkers don’t know what a blonde ale is, and those used to drinking macro lager probably weren’t looking for a “blonde.”

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At first, we weren’t sure where to enter Standard in competitions. Side by side with pilsner, Standard has slightly more fruit esters and lacks lager yeast character. However, it isn’t quite fruity enough, and is probably too hoppy, to fit the profile of a kölsch—although we did enter those categories to see how it scored. (It didn’t place.) We entered in multiple categories that first year, trying to figure out where it scored best.

Then, in 2018, with the GABF gold for blonde, we figured that would be the category to stick with!

Standard Elements

A great blonde ale should be clean, crisp, refreshing, and super crushable. It should be a well-attenuated, malt-oriented beer with a subtle, soft, malty sweetness—but it should pack in as much hop aroma and flavor as necessary to push the style’s boundary without pushing away the average drinker. It should drink smoothly, with a restrained bitterness, no harsh or cloying character, and it must finish clean and dry.

A blonde ale is a delicate blend of ingredients that need to work well together without overpowering or interfering with each other.

Water. Ours is extremely hard and inconsistent, with total dissolved solids upward of 1,500 parts per million, so we run everything through a carbon filter and reverse osmosis to strip it way down. We hit our target mash pH using acidulated malt in the mash and a minimal gypsum and calcium chloride sparge addition, to minimize pH creep while lautering.

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Grist and Mash. We prefer an all-malt recipe, and we keep it simple by focusing on fresh, quality ingredients. We use a blend of two-row and pilsner malt to provide solid malt character while still allowing the hops to shine. We mash at 149°F (65°C) at a targeted mash pH of 5.4, which lets us maintain just enough body while still hitting our target finishing gravity.

Hopping. We use a European pilsner–influenced hop selection on this beer, with Saaz, Mandarina Bavaria, and Hersbrucker. At MadeWest we restrain bitterness across the board on all our beers, focusing instead on whirlpool additions and generous dry hopping. We hop this beer at just under a half-pound per barrel (about 1.3 oz per 5 gallons, or 37 g per 19 liters) in the whirlpool with all three varieties, then we dry hop with Saaz and Mandarina, also at a half-pound per barrel.

Fermentation. Fermentation is crucial; otherwise, all your other ingredients really don’t matter. We use a clean American ale yeast (BSI-1) and ferment at 63°F (17°C). The cooler temperature lets us minimize ester production and minimize yeast character, which really allows the malt character to pop and the hops to shine.

At that temperature, we find that a pitching rate of 1 million cells/ml/°P results in consistently healthy fermentation with good attenuation. We lock in the initial yeast flavor profile in the first two days, then allow a swift free rise up to 72°F (22°C) to rip through any remaining sugars and ensure that it reaches the target finish of 1.5°P (FG 1.006). The warmer temperature allows it to clean up quickly, with no residual diacetyl.

Describing the Standard

Standard has solid hop character for a blonde without going overboard. It has subtle floral and spicy hop undertones, with a pleasant soft fruity character from the Mandarina.

It’s really clean and well-rounded, with just a bit more fruity-hop character than the average blonde ale. The beer is super bright, soft and full—it checks many boxes without being loud in any direction. The Mandarina provides the fruity character, to fill in for the minimal ester production from the cooler fermentation. The beer is clean and crisp like a lager, but without the sulfur profile, while other blondes may have more pronounced yeast esters.

Want to turn more people on to blonde ale and other classic styles? Brew good examples of them and don’t just brew them to have a less-hoppy or less-bitter beer on the menu.

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