A Beer Style or a Way of Life?
Styles & Seasonals
January 26, 2006
Written by SilkTork
Think of a British beer style and chances are that Bitter will spring to mind. Walk into a British pub and, apart from Guinness, the beers on offer will be Pale Lager or Bitter. Some speciality pubs may occasionally offer a Mild and or a Stout other than Guinness, and you may be lucky enough to come upon a Golden Summer Ale. But you won’t avoid Bitter. The name on the pump may say Ordinary or Special or Premium or ESB - but the beer will be Bitter.
Bitter is a loose term. Us Brits use it to mean a range of things. We can use to mean any beer other than lager or Guinness. We can use it to mean a cask beer. But mostly we use it to mean a type of Pale Ale. Indeed, the expression first appears in the UK in the early 19th century as part of the development of Pale Ale.
Pale Ale was a term used for beers made from pale malt dried with the new fangled coke. Coke had been invented in Britain as a replacement for wood and coal, and was first used for roasting malt in 1642, but it wasn’t until around 1703 that the term Pale Ale was first used to describe the lighter coloured beers. By 1784 adverts were appearing in the Calcutta Gazette for "light and excellent" Pale Ale which was being shipped over by officers of the East India Company. Hodgson’s October Ale being one of the most notable and popular of these Pale Ales. By 1830 onward British brewers were selling their Pale Ales in British pubs, though the customers were calling these beers Bitter. It is thought that customers used the term Bitter to differentiate the Pale Ales from other less noticeably hopped beers such as Porter and Mild. By the mid to late 20th century while brewers were still labelling bottled beers as Pale Ale, they had begun to mark cask beers as Bitter. While the two terms are still used interchangeably in the UK, the preference is for the term Bitter to be used for both bottled and cask beer, and use of the term Pale Ale has declined.
Bitter belongs in the Pale Ale style family along with American Pale Ale and French Amber or Biere de Garde, though Bitter has developed a significantly greater variety of strength, flavour and appearance than the parent Pale Ale. A Bitter can be very dark and roasty, approaching a Stout, or be very golden and delicate like a Golden Summer Ale. It can also go under 3% abv as with Boys Bitter and as high as 7% with some Premium or Strong Bitters. During the early to mid 20th century there were some regional preferences noted which may still be detected in the beers of some of the more established breweries. In Cornwall, Wales, North England and Scotland the preference was for sweeter, less hopped beer. In other areas, particularly South East England, the preference was for hoppy beers.
British brewers have several loose names for variations in beer strength, such as IPA, Best Bitter, Special Bitter, Extra Special Bitter, and Premium Bitter. While the drinkers tend to loosely group the beers into Session or Ordinary Bitter (up to 4% abv), Best or Special Bitter (between 4.0% and 4.7% abv) and Premium or Strong Bitter (4.8% abv and over). There is no agreed and defined difference between an Ordinary and a Best Bitter other than one particular brewery’s Best Bitter will usually be stronger than his Ordinary. And two groups of drinkers may mark differently the point at which a Best Bitter becomes a Premium Bitter. Hop levels will vary within each sub group, though there is a tendency for the hops in the Session Bitter group to be more noticeable.
The most common characteristics of Bitter are that: it will be made from pale malts (like all Pale Ales), British style ale yeasts, and English style hops. Crystal malt is very popular, and wheat, maize, sugar, New World and European hops, etc are all also used quite commonly by British brewers. Even though Bitter does wander all over the place, the most common colour is amber, the most common hop flavours and aromas will be dusty, earthy English hops from Goldings and Fuggles, and the most common malt flavours will be a little bit of toffee leaning toward butterscotch. The lower abv Bitters, such as the Session Bitters, will tend to have apple notes. While the bigger abv Bitters, such as the Premium Bitters, will tend to have darker flavour notes, either from a more intense use of hops, or from darker malts. The Session Bitters tend to be dryer with flowery hops, while the Premium Bitters tend to be sweeter with less use of flowery hops. The most common Bitter strength is around 4.4% abv. But these are all generalisations on a beer that doesn’t like to be tied down.
Outside Britain the term Bitter by itself is little used. In the United States the term ESB is more commonly used. Where Bitter is used it indicates a Pale Ale of low abv brewed using as many British ingredients as possible. In other countries Bitter appears to be used when the intention is to make a hoppy beer (or one at least a bit hoppier than the standard for the local style). In Australia Bitter is used for several lagers such as Victoria Bitter, which are hoppier than the average Aussie lager. In Belgium it is used for a strong Pale Ale by De Ranke which is highly hopped. In the Czech Republic it is used by Pivovar Svijany for Svijansky Rytíír Bitter, a hoppier than average Bohemian Pilsener. But these are rare examples. Only in Britain is the term used so much. Indeed, for the British drinker, Bitter isn’t so much a style of beer as it is simply the only beer. In Britain, Bitter is a way of life.
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There is no agreed and defined difference between an Ordinary and a Best Bitter other than one particular brewery’s Best Bitter will usually be stronger than his Ordinary.
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