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Beer Styles - The Bitter Family
Bitter, Premium Bitter/ESB, Scottish Ale, Golden/Blonde Ale
Styles & Seasonals
June 12, 2005
Written by Oakes
Bitter is the most common form of English ale today. The name developed as the opposite of Mild. It was actually called Pale Ale by the brewers – “bitter” was a colloquial term used by the drinkers. Bitter today is generally a lower-gravity beer, with an alcohol between 3.5-4.5%. There are some stronger bitters as well, mainly in the US.
Bitter is not necessarily bitter. Some of it is fairly sweet. But there must be at least some noticeable bitterness (which Mild generally won’t have). Many of the lighter bitters are quite hop-accented. Bitterness levels range between 20-40 IBUs. Hop character ranges considerably. Carbonation should be low, as bitter should ideally be cask-conditioned. Body is light. The water is sometimes quite hard as well, which lends a minerally character and a more astringent bitterness. The yeast often plays a critical role in the character of bitter. If too clean a yeast is used, a bitter will definitely be lacking. Some brewers developed intricate systems of fermentation and yeast maintenance, such as Yorkshire Squares or Burton Unions, in order to retain the unique house character of the beers, which is lent by the yeast.
In England, IPA is a term used for bitter and bitter in a bottle may still be referred to as Pale Ale.
Most popular examples: Boddington’s Pub Ale (England), Belhaven Scottish Ale (Scotland), McEwan’s India Pale Ale (Scotland), Coniston Blue Bird Bitter (England), Timothy Taylor Landlord (England)
Some of my favourites: Fuller’s Chiswick (England), Cain’s Traditional Bitter (England), Harviestoun Indian Summer (Scotland), Smiles Best (England), Young’s Bitter (England)
Colour: 2 – 3.5
Flavour: 1.5 – 3.5
Sweetness: 0.5 – 2.5
Strong bitters are known in England as Premium Bitter. These range anywhere over 4.5%, upwards of 6%. These are balanced beers, and should exhibit distinctively all four major brewing ingredients – minerals from hard water, house character from distinctive yeast strains, robust hopping, and strong malt character.
The most well-known Premium Bitter has to be Fuller’s ESB. In England, ESB is a brand name, but in America it is a beer style, roughly comprised of Fuller’s ESB imitators. This type should have balanced, rounded flavours and an earthy, dry, perhaps woody finish. Even in American versions, the ingredients are frequently English. The flavour profile will be bigger than most Bitters and complexity levels a little higher.
Most popular examples: Bass Ale (England), Fuller’s ESB (England), Redhook ESB (USA), Morland Old Speckled Hen (England), Fuller’s London Pride (England)
Some of my favourites: Spinnakers’ Mitchell’s ESB (Canada), Yards Extra Special Ale (USA), Jämtlands Postiljon (Sweden), Mordue Workie Ticket (England), Nynäshamsn Bedarö Bitter (Sweden)
Colour: 2 – 3.5
Flavour: 1.75 – 4
Sweetness: 1 – 3
The first golden ales were introduced by ale brewers in an attempt to combat the rise of golden lager forms. These beers were under numerous rubrics, a couple of which still remain even though the styles they supposedly represent are essentially extinct.
The first of these is Canadian Ale. Many of America’s major brewers were lager makers of Central European origin, but Canada’s were of ale-making British stock. So while embracing the wave of pale beer with lagers like Budweiser was a natural to American brewers, Canadian brewers were less inclined to launch lagers. They did eventually, of course, but Canada’s major lager brands are not nearly as old as America’s. So although there must have been US brewers making similar products at the same time, the practice was more widespread in Canada and the ales themselves survived much longer. By the 1980s, America’s golden ales amounted like Ballantine’s and Rainer Ale, while Canada still had Labatt 50, Alexander Keith’s, Molson Export, Molson Old Stock, Moosehead Ten Penny, Oland Export and more. Today, beers in the Canadian Ale family of golden ales are virtually indistinguishable from Pale Lagers. They are bland, yellow, fizzy beers with very little bitterness. Some of the less popular examples, like Molson Stock Ale or Ten Penny, will have a touch of malt and hop character. Esters – a key differentiator between ales and lagers – are at a minimum due to the extremely clean yeast that many of these beers are made with. Moreover, some are even lagered! Unibroue’s Bolduc is said to be an example of how the style tasted in the 1950s, and if that is the case, clearly Canadian Ale has for all intents and purposes disappeared.
Another variation on the theme, with the same approximate history as Canadian Ale, is Cream Ale. This style had its heartland in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Ontario. Again, it was an attempt by ale brewers to combat the rise of lager. Many examples are said to have been blends of ale and lager, in an attempt to lend lagerlike smoothness to a brewery’s existing ale. Today, such blended cream ales are probably extinct, but the name lives on in several beers, some quite popular. Some microbreweries have taken up the style, and with higher hop rates and malt character, are likely doing a better job of replicating the originals than the modern-day versions of those originals are. But at the end of the day, there is little if anything to distinguish a Cream Ale from a Canadian Ale. (As a point of confusion, the term Cream Ale is used in other ways – a strong dark mild in British Columbia or a nitrokeg ale as in Caffrey’s).
Another type of golden ale is not far from those – the brewpub golden. Often, brewpubs or microbreweries in North America will brew a light, bland ale of limited character as a starter beer, for those who “don’t normally drink microbrewed beers”. For the most part, these may be produced on a small scale, are all-malt and have a hint of hop character (usually soft-tasting varieties at low levels of bitterness) but still are true to the Canadian Ale and Cream Ale ideal of replicating Pale Lagers. This type appears to slowly be dying out as breweries realize that most “conversions” come with beers of flavour – those who don’t drink for flavour will tend to stick to their preferred brand regardless.
The only style of golden ale not on the decline is the relatively new, and wildly popular English Golden Ale. The beer credited with being the first is HopBack Summer Lightning, which was launched in the late 1980’s. It was an immediate hit and spawned many imitators. British Golden Ales, also called Summer Ales, are ultimately born of the same desire to combat the rise of lager. Real ale brewers are adapting their existing product – bitter – to a golden form. The beer is hop-accented, live, and has a lively malt backbone, usually pale malts unless some wheat has been added. Some brewers are experimenting with American hops, and hop rates. A couple of North American brewers have picked up this style. This cross-pollination, combined with the rapid pace of lagerfication that traditional North American golden ales are undergoing, may lead in coming decades to this new English interpretation of the golden ale becoming the only representation of the style. It already is the only one that serious beer lovers care about.
A minor substyle is sparkling ale, a cloudy golden ale from Cooper’s, of Adelaide, Australia. This is a notably effervescent fruity, beer with a good malt character and fine balance. There have been other sparkling ales from time to time in Adelaide, but none have proven to have much relevance. Historical texts refer to another type of “sparkling ale” that has nothing to do with the Adelaide type and is best exemplied today by Bell’s Sparkling Ale from Michigan.
Golden ales are light yellow to light amber in colour. Old-school examples have low hop bitterness and little malt or hop flavour. Their bodies are thin to light. Brewpub examples will be straw to light amber, with low hop bitterness, some malt and hop flavour and light to moderate in body. English examples will be straw to dark gold in colour, with moderate hop bitterness (those with high hop bitterness might be better considered American Pale Ale by the Style Police) and moderate malt and hop character. The brewpub example have a range of character that overlaps the other types, providing a fairly consistent continuum for the style.
Most popular examples: Cooper’s Sparkling (Australia), Rogue Oregon Golden (USA), Alexander Keith’s IPA (Canada), Molson Export (Canada), HopBack Summer Lightning (England)
Some of my favourites: Hair of the Dog Ruth (USA), Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted (Scotland), Triple fff Moondance (England), Rooster’s Hooligan (England), Big Time Sunbreak Blonde (USA)
Colour: 0 – 1.5
Flavour: 0 – 3.25
Sweetness: 1.5 – 3.5
The concept of Scottish ale came out of Michael Jackson’s seminal writings. It is my interpretation that he was not specifically laying down the groundwork for a beer style so much as describing the types of ales made in Scotland and their characteristics. He did the same for the ales in Ireland and America as well. Now, this may sound like a beer style, but I’m not sure it was intended as such. The ales of Scotland were bitter and mild, the same as in England. They gave them different names – the shillings, which were tax codes – and made them maltier. The shilling names lived on in a handful of local products, but also caught the imagination of US microbrewers for their quaint, historical ring. In other words, Scottish Ale was a regional interpretation of the same beer styles the English were drinking. In fact, the whole island of Britain has pockets of regional characteristics in its beers. But Scotland is a very identifiable component, and many Scots at home and abroad have much more patriotism than say, Kentish or Cornish people.
Thus New World brewers of Scottish ancestry, such as Torontonian Bert Grant, popularized the term Scottish Ale in North America. Indeed, Grant’s beer was dubbed Scottish Ale more due to his ancestry than any attempt at making a Scottish-style beer. Grant’s Scottish Ale had a massive American hop character that has nothing to do with either the ales of Scotland, nor what would later be known in America as "Scottish Ale". For those fluent in the subtle differences between an "Amber" and a "Red", Grant’s Scottish would be best described as a hoppy proto-red.
While the lightest of the shillings – 60 – was written out by Jackson as a dark mild not distinguishably different from English examples, the stronger shillings were written out as something beyond a malty bitter, in terms of malt character. Moreover, a malty bitter could have caramel or toast notes, but a Scottish example could have toffeeish, liquoricey or even smoky notes. The smoke was not always the result of a specific ingredient addition, but has become so as peat-smoked malt used in whisky making has found its way to both Scottish and Scotch ales. This is a separate matter altogether from the whisky-malt beers of France and Quebec, which are directly inspired by the distilled product and not based on any beer of Scottish lineage.
The regular ales of Scotland may or may not be in this style – in order to be considered such they need to reflect the style’s hallmarks of dark malt character, low attenuation, and low hop rates. These are intended as heavy-for-the-gravity, sweet, earthy, chewy beers, full of flavour. Alcohol ranges from 4-5.5%. The 60 shilling type, uncommon as it is, is a mild.
Most popular examples: Saranac Single Malt (USA), Odell 90 Shilling (USA), Caledonian 80/- (Scotland), Pyramid Tilted Kilt (USA), Inveralmond Lia Fail (Scotland)
Some of my favourites: Traquair Bear Ale (Scotland), Moulin Ale of Atholl (Scotland), Inveralmond Lia Fail (Scotland), PumpHouse Burns Scottish Ale (Canada)
Colour: 2.5 – 4.25
Flavour: 1.75 – 3.75
Sweetness: 3.25 – 4.25
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