Bitter is the signature English beer style—the culmination of centuries of brewing know-how in an evolving cultural and historical context. Multiple forces have honed it into a drink that represents the best of what classic beer ingredients can become, perfectly suited to the unique drinking culture that pervades the island nation.
Viewed from the outside, however, it can be a bit confusing. Beyond a great lips-on experience, bitter needs a bit of explaining.
What Is “Bitter,” Really?
First, let’s define what we’re talking about. Built on the foundations of IPA and its forerunner, October beer, “bitter” is a term that seems to have arisen late in the 19th century, associated with a lighter, drier pale-ale style. Eventually, the effects of wartime deprivations, economics, and government reduction of alcohol consumption prodded the style into the lowish gravity range we know today. Uniquely, Britain has retained its traditional method of serving cask-conditioned “real ale”—although, since the mid-20th century, it has become a specialty product, sustained by consumer-driven promotion and preservation efforts.
The terminology can be confusing. Bitter and pale ale are somewhat interchangeable terms, although pale ales are typically associated with the stronger end of the range. The division of bitters into three distinct gravity/strength categories in North American competitions is simply a tool to split a (once) large category into manageable numbers for judging. Most brewers in England produce more than one strength, but they rarely offer three, and the terminology—ordinary, best/special, ESB—is anything but consistent. The last, revered as a darker, balanced “style” in the United States, is actually the brand name for Fuller’s singularly rich and malty interpretation, which was widely distributed just as the burgeoning American microbrewing scene was looking for inspiration.
Real Ales, from the Pub
We can only understand bitter in the context of Britain’s deeply rooted drinking culture. The glasses are large—imperial pints, at 20 fluid ounces (568 ml). Since “pub” is short for “public house,” people enjoy hanging out and want to have more than a couple. Unlike the flat beer tax in the United States, Britain’s alcohol-based tax system generates very precise pounds-and-pence pricing rather than the even dollar amounts common here. Drinkers typically would rather save a little change by drinking the lighter versions and, perhaps, having one more than would otherwise be prudent. I’ve always said that bitter should be judged by how good the third pint tastes.
Since the common trope about bitter is that it’s “warm and flat,” it might be useful to focus on what it’s not. The proper temperature is that of a cool cellar, in the mid 50s°F (11–14°C) rather than the 38°F (3°C) typical for lagers. Cellar temperatures allow the aromas to blossom generously.
Bitter’s gentle carbonation is a holdover from the earlier use of wooden kegs, which can’t handle as much pressure as modern stainless steel. Rather than flat, it’s carbonated at about 1 to 1.5 volumes of CO2, as opposed to perhaps 1.5 to 2.5 volumes for other ales and lagers or the 3 to 4 typical of weissbier and Belgian ales. This lower carbonation reduces the masking effect of the gas, further enhancing flavor and making the beer easier to consume heartily.
What drives these characteristics is the cask ale tradition. This is beer carbonated in the vessel from which it will be served, without the use of added CO2. Bottle-conditioning is acceptable, but draft is the heart of the style. Cloudiness is generally viewed as a sign of poor cellarmanship.
The process for real ale is relatively risky for brewers, as they are essentially handing off the final stage of production to the pub. Beers arrive still fermenting, and they need to be coaxed into their final bright, carbonated form in the cellar, which obviously offers opportunities for things to go wrong. This may have been easier to manage when breweries had controlling interest in most of their pubs. As those ties have weakened, breweries have had to rely on the enthusiasm and care of those running the pubs, with variable results. One of the reasons for cask ale’s decades-long decline may be inconsistent quality at the point of service.
It’s cliché to say that beer is better when you drink it in its homeland, but it’s especially true in this case. Sad to say, great cask ale is quite rare outside of Britain. Elsewhere it is usually the passion project of a brewery or a pub. Nor does it travel well. I was involved in Ray Daniels’ Real Ale Fest, which offered more than 200 firkins of real ale at its zenith in the late 1990s, mostly from U.S. brewers. A sponsor paid to fly in British casks, but the ales were often imperfect, and many were pulled from service—apparently, even a few hours of truck and air transport was all it took to pull them to pieces. Even under the best circumstances, there’s a tempus fugit quality about cask ale, as inflowing air brings oxidation as well as infectious microbes just a few days after the casks are broached.
Beautiful Bitters, in Profile
Bitters are light-bodied beers, with a focus on quaffability. While all-malt versions are common, so are versions with adjuncts such as corn and even sugar. Unmalted grains such as flaked barley and wheat can improve body and head retention. The magic of bitter is that brewers can manage to create satisfying beers even with substantial adjunct contributions.
As one would expect, pale ale malt is generally the base. This is a little more highly kilned than lager malt, at 2 to 4° Lovibond (4 to 8 EBC), making a golden amber beer with a crisp, biscuity character. In earlier days, a dark pale ale malt called “imperial” was available; some older books show four color levels, with a special paler one just for IPAs. Check the manufacturer’s specs, as there still may be some choice available.
In such a delicate beer as bitter, the gorgeous complexity of a characterful base malt can really shine. Breeders developed Maris Otter, a low-yielding barley variety specifically for brewers. Released in 1966, it was popular in the 1970s, then nearly went extinct until—fortunately—grain dealers revived it a few decades ago. It’s hard to describe: fuller, richer, just more beery overall, making for a more profound drinking experience. Golden Promise is a British heritage-whiskey barley (not smoked, if you’re wondering), while small and mid-size maltsters in the United States and elsewhere are experimenting with breeds that offer much more flavor than the widely available barleys.
Darker malts add character but should be used with a deft touch. Biscuit or amber malt is a good deal darker at 20 to 30°L (52 to 79 EBC). With a sharp, toasty personality that’s great for brown ales, it should be used sparingly. Vienna and Munich malts, while not traditional, offer clean caramel and cookie notes that can add a lot of depth. Crystal malts are common, but they need to be used much more subtly than in old-school American pale ales. Flavors range from kettle-corn to sweet caramel to toffee and toasted sugar; obviously, the paler ones can be used more freely than the darker ones. A key fact is that each manufacturer’s process is somewhat different, and since Maillard browning is highly sensitive to process conditions such as time, temperature, and moisture level, two products with exactly the same color rating can taste very different from each other. (Making and tasting malt teas is actually an enlightening homebrew-club activity that’s not too hard to organize.)
“Bitter” is not a misnomer—or at least it shouldn’t be. These beers are tilted at least partially toward hops, although each brewery has its own house character, from balanced to bracing. Remember: These are in the neighborhood of 4 percent ABV, so loading them up with 80 IBUs is likely to be a disaster. Less is more. Depending on the beer, 20 to 40 IBUs is appropriate. Dry hopping is usually a nice touch.
To be in style, bitter really depends heavily on English-style hop varieties, with their subtly bright herbal character. East Kent Goldings has been the premium choice for at least a couple of centuries. There are other English hops to explore, though: First Gold offers close-to-classic aroma, with extra bitterness; Challenger and Progress bring a little more earthiness; Northdown has a dark, somewhat woody character. Many Slovenian hops have English parentage; you can slip in some Glacier without upsetting the style paradigm. German Opal is equally clean and subtle.
Yeast really matters here. Two London brands represent classic examples: Young & Company’s and Fuller’s, each representing a very different take on the style. Young’s range is more crisply bitter, while Fuller’s is rounder and more malty. The recipes are different, of course, but much of the credit is due to the difference in their yeasts. Young’s yeast enhances hop bitterness and hop character; Fuller’s suppresses them. How this occurs is a bit of a mystery, although yeast are pretty potent little chemical factories. Boddington’s strain (aka Conan) is said to enhance mouthfeel, appropriate perhaps for “the cream of Manchester,” as they call it—it’s also popular among brewers of hazy IPAs. With a little sleuthing, you can connect which yeast from available sources matches which classic brewery.
Bitter fans are passionate about their favorites and other controversies: Should it have a generous head, or not much? Should one use a sparkler attachment on the faucet to fluff up the head? Is it kosher to use a cask breather to limit the introduction of air, keeping the beer fresher for a few more days, even though it’s not traditional?
These controversies and others will keep the arguments going in the pubs—beer after delicious beer.