Despite the recent widespread popularity of thin golden lagers in England’s country’s pubs, the bitter is the national drink of England. The term “bitter” refers to a specific type of cask-conditioned draught ale, and in many pubs across the UK “a pint of bitter” still remains a usual order for beer.
In Britain, the term has been used to describe pale ales since the early 19th century, although the term did not become extensively used until around a century later. The term bitter is a style, and a broad one at that, comprising of a range of colours, tastes, and strengths. Contrary to popular belief, bitters are not only the traditional tawny brown in colour, and can be golden or even as pale as straw in some cases.
The term “bitter” became commonly used prior to the use of pump clips, which identify different beers or brands. The beers were classified by the brewers who produced them as “pale ales”, but as there was nothing on the bar to tell drinkers what they should be asking for, they requested a “bitter” to indicate they didn’t want the sweeter, less-hopped mild, which was a common alternative. Until very recently, most beer consumed in Britain was cask-conditioned beer on draught, which was served in pubs. Seeing as the term bitter was used by customers the brewers adopted it too.
Nowadays, most British brewers produce at least one bitter, which are universally fermented at warm temperatures using ale yeasts. Colours for these beers can range from an almost pilsner-like, bright golden hue to a full mahogany, and the alcohol content can stretch from 5.5% to a low 3.0%. Traditionally, brewers produce two bitters, one at a low strength, known as “ordinary”, with a higher strength one known as “best” or “best bitter”. Best bitters are usually in the mid 4% area, with anything higher than that being referred to as “special bitters”. The hop content of bitter can be anything from a light, subtle bitterness to something more significant and tongue tingling, although most have a bitterness of around 30 IBU (International Bitterness Units). It is not uncommon for bitters to be “dry-hopped”; this involves adding a handful of whole hops to each cask, after fermentation to provide additional, fresher hop aromas to the beer.
The mash is generally made up using lightly toasted pale malt, with the Maris Otter barley variety still predominantly favoured by most traditional brewers. Slight amounts of caramelized crystal malt may be added for colour and to provide extra flavour. Some brewers also include invert sugar, which yields a soft toffee flavour.
Traditional bitters are hopped with British varieties of Fuggles and Goldings, nurtured in the hop fields of Kent, Herefordshire, Worcestershire, and Oxfordshire. These hops are recognised for their moderate bitterness and their strong pine, fruity aromas, which persist in the flavour profile of many bitters.
|Buzzwords||Bitter, Biscuit, Session|
|Appearance||Can be anything from pale to almost black. However, most are pale amber to light copper in colour.|
|Alcohol Content||3.2%-3.8%, with anything higher being termed a "best" or "special" bitter|
|Aroma & Flavour||Medium to moderate bitterness for most, with possibly fruity notes and a particularly earthy hop profile, with pine and resin notes at the forefront. Malt profile is typically bready, biscuity or lightly toasty and caramel notes are not uncommon.|
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Fuller’s is a templar of real ale brewing, being the only brewery to have won CAMRA’s Champion of Britain award four times with three different beers. Their Chiskwick bitter is an example of a classic bitter, a golden ale with a feint hoppy, bitter flavour and a light citrus and toffee finish at only 3.5% ABV.
Complex caramel and toffee notes hit you initially, followed up with hints of apple and finally giving way to a long, lingering British hop bitterness. Goes great with English cheese and pickle.
This is actually a special bitter, it pours light copper with a ruby tint and brilliant white head. Has strong fruity aromas which are balanced by earthy hops. A light sweetness from the malt persists through and are followed up by hints of caramel and wood.
Other Important Varieties
Bitters are more of a family of linked beer styles, rather than one distinct beer style. Bitters are hard to classify, mainly due to the sheer breadth that they encompasses. The discrete ale yeasts which are native to different breweries are major determinants of flavour, as some yeast varieties lend to orangey notes when used in one bitter, yet banana notes to another. Traditionally, bitters also differed based on geography. Hoppy bitters, such as Shepherd Neame’s Canterbury Jack, a pale beer with a marked citrus aroma, are found throughout Kent, London, and the Thames Valley.
The Midlands was known as the home of sweeter bitters; Marston’s Burton bitter is a good example. West Country bitters are generally fruity, whereas South Wales was the home of specifically malty bitters. Bitters with less carbonation, which yields a creamier texture, can be found in Yorkshire, whilst Manchester was known to have fruity, dry bitters. There are also bitters which operate under the title of “IPA”, despite the fact that neither their bitterness nor strength merits the title. Scotland was renowned for its fuller bodied “lights” and “heavies”.
Nowadays, many North American brewers brew a bitter. Served on draught, they generally have a much higher alcohol content compared to their British cousins and tend to have a higher carbonation, changing their character somewhat. There are also plenty of craft brewers, predominantly in the United States, but across the world too, who have been trying their hands at cask-conditioned bitters. Whilst good cellarmanship is still a rarity outside of the UK, many of these breweries are producing enjoyable, unique versions of bitter.
Bitter is the signature ale of Britain’s brewers, demonstrating immense skill to be able to produce beers with only about 3.5% ABV, yet packed with so much flavour and character.