Bitter, despite the recent ubiquity of thin golden lagers in the country’s pubs, is the national drink of England. The word “bitter” describes a particular type of cask-conditioned draught ale, and in many pubs “a pint of bitter” remains a standard order for beer.
The British have been using the word bitter to describe pale ales since the early 19th century, although the term did not entirely take hold until almost a century later. The style, such as it is, is broad, covering a range of colors, tastes, and strengths. Despite popular myth, bitters are not traditionally only tawny brown in color. In 1899, one of the great early beer writers, Alfred Barnard, penned the following description for a popular West Country bitter: “A bright, sparkling beverage of a rich golden colour and possesses a nice, delicate hop flavour.” Another contemporary described a bitter as being “straw coloured.”
The term “bitter” came into common use before the use of pump clips to identify different beers or brands. Brewers themselves called the beers “pale ale,” but ordinary customers began to identify them as bitters. There was nothing on the bar to tell customers they should be asking for pale ale, and so they requested a bitter to show they didn’t want the sweeter, less-hopped mild. Until recently, most beer consumed in the UK was cask-conditioned beer on draught, served in pubs. Because the customers were calling the beer bitter, the term stuck and even the brewers began to use it.
Most British brewers produce at least one bitter. Cask conditioning and service by beer engine or gravity dispense is traditional (although these days bitter is sometimes filtered, pasteurized, and even bottled, processes that tend to shear away the beer’s best qualities). The beers are universally fermented at warm temperatures by ale yeasts. The color ranges from an almost pilsner-like golden hue to a full mahogany, and the strength may be anything from a low 3.0% alcohol by volume (ABV) to a more steadfast 5.5%. Often a brewer will produce at least two bitters—one at a lower strength and the other stronger; in this case the weaker beer will be known as just bitter or “ordinary” and the other “best” or “best bitter.” Best bitters tend to be in the mid 4% range, with anything stronger designated by another name, sometimes “special bitter.” The hop content of bitter can range from a light, gentle bitterness to something more substantial and tongue tingling, although typically they will have a bitterness of around 30 (international bitterness units). It is not unusual for a brewer to “dry-hop” the beer by adding a handful of whole hops to each cask, allowing extra, fresher hop aromas to suffuse into the beer.
The mash is normally made from a lightly toasted pale malt, with the Maris Otter barley variety still particularly favored by the most traditional of brewers.
Bitters are traditionally hopped with the great British varieties of Fuggles and Goldings, grown in the hop fields of Kent, Herefordshire, Worcestershire, and Oxfordshire. These hops are renowned for their moderate bitterness and their piney, fruity aromatics, which remain prominent in the flavor profile of many bitters. Today, however, Britain’s oft conservative brewers also look to other parts of the world for flavorsome hops to add to their recipes.
Britain’s bitters are almost more of a family of related beer styles than one distinct beer style. Bitters are hard to codify, and the style is very broad. The breweries’ individual ale yeasts are major determinants of flavor, with yeast lending orangey notes to one bitter and banana notes to another. Traditionally they have also varied greatly from region to region. Hoppy bitters, like Shepherd Neame’s Canterbury Jack, a pale beer with a pronounced citrus aroma, are found throughout Kent, London, and the Thames Valley.
The Midlands was renowned for its sweeter bitters; Marston’s Burton bitter is an example. West Country bitters are typically fruity, whereas South Wales was the home of particularly malty bitters. Smoother, creamier bitters can be found in Yorkshire, and Manchester was renowned for its fruity, dry beers. Other bitters are called by the name “IPA” even when neither the bitterness nor the strength properly merits the title (although truer forms of India pale ale are re-emerging in Britain). Scotland was known for its fuller bodied “lights” and “heavies.” Other styles are still being developed, such as brightly hoppy, golden-hued “summer bitters” well suited to summers that seem warmer than they once were.
Bitter is the signature ale of Britain’s brewers, with their skill exemplified by the ability to produce beers with only about 3.5% ABV, yet with so much flavor and character.
Bitter and British pubs are almost inseparable companions. Bitters are “running beers,” an old term for beers that are best drunk fresh and are not meant to age for a long period of time. They are not for sipping but for drinking, preferably by the pint and over a good conversation. Although foreigners sometimes describe bitters as “warm and flat,” they are actually best served at cellar temperature, 11°C–14°C (50°F–55°F). No one wants “warm, flat beer,” least of all a veteran bitter enthusiast.
Today many North American brewers brew a bitter. Hale’s Ale and Redhook (formerly the Independent Ale Brewery) launched their versions in 1984, as did others in Canada. Served on draught, they are often stronger than British bitters and tend toward a higher carbonation, which changes their nature. Many craft brewers, particularly in the United States, but elsewhere around the world as well, have been trying their hands at cask-conditioned bitters. Although good cellarmanship remains rare outside of the UK, many of these breweries are making delicious versions of bitter.