As we work our way through the styles in this column, it pays to revisit some earlier renditions to see where we failed to get down to brass tacks on specific recipes in favor of a discussion of general approaches.
One such area is the venerable English Pale Ales, and while ESB got a revisit to nail down some of those aforementioned tacks today we’ll be jumping to the other end of the EPA spectrum: the Ordinary Bitter. While some think of this as nothing more than a bland, low-ABV, thin-bodied ale, at its best it’s one of the better drinking beers around! Give me a brewery that keeps an Ordinary Bitter on a hand pump, a good soccer match on the TV, and a comfortable place to sit and I can kill an entire day.
Give me that same beer at home, and I can tick off entire weeks – there’s a simple pleasure to this style that makes it a joy to drink, with the added bonus of being a beer that you can enjoy a full dimpled mug of and still follow the action on the pitch.
The Guidelines are oddly specific-yet-vague on Ordinary Bitter. They focus on general qualities more than specific characteristics, which is both a blessing and a curse. The danger is that you’ll end up making a beer that perfectly matches the “low gravity, low alcohol, low carbonation” overall impression, but which lacks any particular flavor you might want to taste or smell.
The repeated refrain in the guidelines is “bready” and variations thereof, so for sure you’ll want that classic bread-biscuit background note – but where to go from there? One place is the moderate hops aroma and flavor which can be present, and the guidelines all but scream “use English hops” in describing the flavor profile of said hops. Likewise, a moderate level of esterification is expected, and several English yeasts will get the job done (even at modestly cool temperatures).
And, of course, there’s a noticeable bitterness. Given the low OG, though, it’s a good idea not to go too far overboard and turn this into hop tea. 25-35 IBUs are indicated. And finally, you’ll want some color – or will you? Certainly the guidelines call for it (SRM is noted as 8-14), but is it really necessary? That’s up to you.
Start with Maris Otter for your base malt – 6.5 pounds (3kg) should be enough (we’re targeting an OG of 1.039). To that we add half a pound (0.23kg) of Victory malt, which will ensure that we get the toast we’re looking for and a very English-appropriate level of biscuits-in-the-oven flavor. You can stop there. If you’re a stickler, though, and if you want a bit more caramel in your flavor profile, you can add a quarter-pound (0.11kg) of 90L Crystal malt. I prefer mine without, but if you plan on entering in competition (or if you’re a dark crystal fan) toss a bit into the mash.
Crystal 80L will do the same in terms of color adjustment and a bit of dark sugar flavor, but since I try to stock British crystal malts at all times, the 90L is what I have and know. And when appropriate to the flavor profile, I do prefer to use regionally-accurate ingredients.
Hopping is easy: one ounce (28g) each of Fuggles and East Kent Goldings at the ten-minute mark, then do the math on a bittering hops addition for the top of the boil to reach a total of 30 IBUs even. It usually ends up being about 20 IBUs in the bittering addition, and about 10 from the late addition, depending on alpha acid percentage of the later hops.
I prefer the London Ale III (1318) from Wyeast for my bitters, but if you’re looking for more fruit the 1968 (London ESB) is a better choice. I just happen to find that it overpowers the great bakery flavors, and I’ve never been much dinged for “not enough fruit esters” on the judging table. 1318 has the added advantage of being a high-flocculating yeast, which yields a pretty beer in not much time at all, even with little fining.
Treat your water a bit for this style. Unless you have particularly hard water, I recommend adding a ¼ teaspoon of gypsum (per five gallons) to your mash to promote a slightly flinty, mineral character.
It will accentuate your hops bitterness, which is a hallmark of the style: it isn’t just that it’s bitter, it’s how it’s bitter. Mash at your usual temperature, boil and add the hops as noted above, and chill. Pitch your yeast and ferment at 65F (18C) for three days and then let the beer free-rise to about 68F (20C) and leave it be for about a week (though it may be done sooner). You may have a touch of diacetyl, but it’s not a fault here.
Cold crash and carbonate to 1.25 volumes of CO2. It should be ready to drink immediately!
Don’t assume that just because a beer is session-strength it has to be boring. For all its lightness of body and carbonation, this is still a flavorful beer with a nuanced blend of attributes to appreciate.
It may not have the same kind of punch as the liquid bread of Doppelbock, but there’s no denying that it’s cast in the same mold. Use high-quality and fresh malts and store it cold and dark, and it will even age just fine! But if you’ve done your job right, you won’t want to let it just sit there. Cheers!