For as much as I enjoy the staid reliability of a recipe that produces what I know, every time, there’s also a lot to be said for going through periodic updates on your beers. So, occasionally, I’ll revisit beers that I’m happy with and try some variations, especially if I’ve recently had an example that is notably different but a distinct improvement. One such occasion happily occurred about eighteen months ago, and the result was a marked improvement on a recipe that (luckily) we hadn’t covered here yet!
Between the Ordinary Bitter and the ESB we find the Special/Best/Premium Bitter (which we’ll just call Best Bitter) from here on). Far from being just the “middle child” of the British Pale Ale family, the Best Bitter (which recently got a bit better) should be one of your favorites because it combines the lightness of the Ordinary Bitter with the more flavor-forward nature of the ESB.
With all due respect to the 2015 BJCP Guidelines – and I’m not saying they’re wrong – this style is undersold in terms of its hops. One of the things I love about visiting the UK is the number of hops-forward Best Bitters I can get my hands on, and an increasing number are dry hopped (and a few always were).
So, when the guidelines state “emphasis is on the bittering hop addition as opposed to the aggressive middle and late hopping seen in American ales,” I have to disagree. That aside, even if we accept the guidelines as gospel (which I don’t think Gordon and the BJCP would even want us to do) as a judge I can confidently state that we would not be likely to punish a Best Bitter with a medium-high hops nose, and would likely reward it so long as its malt character was sufficiently present to evoke the biscuit and caramel impressions that we expect from beers in this style.
Aside from that, we find more or less the same description as the Ordinary Bitter, with just a bit more of everything. Although some of the flavor/character ranges are identical between the two styles, I would expect a Best Bitter to reflect the potential opened up by increasing the OG. In other words, a Best Bitter that was only a bit more alcoholic would seem like a missed opportunity.
Maris Otter is your base malt here (unsurprisingly), and if ever there was a time to read some maltster reviews and shop around for fresh grains, this is it. We want a lot of complexity out of not much malt, and good ingredients are going to help. So, seven pounds (3.2kg) of Maris Otter gets us off to a good start. Stay with a half-pound (0.23kg) of Victory malt, and add a quarter-pound (0.11kg) each of 45L and 90L Crystal malt. This should get you to a gravity of about 1.043, post-boil, but that low ABV will seem a lot more potent thanks to the bakery aromas and flavors coming out of it!
Calculate 35 IBUs of bittering for your sixty-minute addition, then add one ounce (28g) each of Northdown and Target hops at flame-out. Both add a degree of UK earthy hoppiness to the beer, but they also (especially the Target) complement the fruity characters we want out of the style. You’ll also need half an ounce (14g) each of Target and Challenger for dry hopping.
London Ale III (1318) from Wyeast is my go-to for English beers, but on this occasion I think the 1968 is actually the better choice. I want some extra fruity esters in this recipe, and 1968 tends to produce more at the temperatures I ferment at. We all need to be flexible now and again.
Just like my other bitters, I add a quarter-teaspoon of gypsum to the mash. If your water is already moderately hard you can probably skip this step, but mine is fairly balanced (great for Kolsch and Altbier) and benefits from a bit more “flinty” character. 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 for seven days, and then try to get it up over 70F (21C) for a few days of clean-up. I don’t care for diacetyl in this beer, and while it isn’t a drop-dead fault it’s still something I try to avoid.
Cold crash, then add your dry hops. 4-5 days should be sufficient, and then rack out form under them, package, and carbonate to 1.75 volumes of CO2.
Don’t let this beer sit for too long, if you can help it: the hops character is at its best immediately after carbonation, and while it will persist for longer if you store the beer cold and dark you’ll lose a noticeable amount early on.
You can also consider increasing the carbonation level of this beer to bring more of the aroma up and out of the glass. Drinkability, though, is essential, and this recipe should get you a bright, light, bready, fruity, semi-herbal beer that’s very easy to drink. Cheers!