The beer we know today as “bitter” has a long, low-profile history as the everyday drink of the common jamoke. While there is an ancient tradition of making weaker “small beer,” hopped beer didn’t make its mark in England until about 1500, with waves of Flemish immigrants. With the introduction of hops—an effective preservative—beers could be considerably weaker and not sour as quickly as did weak ales. These early hopped beers would feel familiar enough today.
Despite their diluted nature, the good bitters can be miraculous.
With water unthinkable as a beverage, low-alcohol small beer was the thirst quencher for man, woman and child. The weaker sorts were often doled out unrestricted to servants, while the family drank a somewhat better version referred to as “table beer.” The former was often just the third runnings of a mash, harsh, husky and weak; the latter was either brewed “entire,” as modern brews are, or with some malt added to the last runnings to fortify it.
Another common practice was to use the first runnings only for strong beer or ale, then combine the second and third runnings for a reasonable strength, everyday beer.
By the mid-19th century, beers were still broadly divided into strong and weak, with the additional emphasis on the aging process. Strong beer required more maturation, and the wooden vessels for aging contributed a sourish twang due to the microbial flora within. Weaker beers were called “running” beers, indicating they were ready to serve quickly, or sometimes “mild,” relative to the stronger “stale” (not a pejorative) ales. By mid-century, these running beers averaged about 1060 original gravity, far stronger than today’s bitter.
Two world wars and taxation according to original gravity quickly fixed that, helped along by a burst of enthusiasm for the new “pale ales” brought home from India by returning veterans.
The result, enhanced by the ever-helpful brewery accountants, is the beer we know today as “bitter.”
Ordinary to Extra Special
We Americans have rigidly sorted bitter into three subclasses: ordinary, at 1030 to 39 OG; best or special, at 1039 to 45; and extra special at 1046 to 65. Some breweries do produce all three, but the definitions are more than a little fuzzy.
Despite their diluted nature, the good bitters can be miraculous. Taking a small quantity of malt, sometimes thinning it further with adjuncts such as corn or sugar, and producing an elegant, enchanting beer is one of the great brewing challenges. It is incredibly difficult to walk the tightrope between overbearing and insipid, but smack in between is a real sweet spot. Consumers of bitter usually have a regular brand they stick to pint after pint. I judge bitters by how good the third pint tastes.
So, how do brewers do it? Here are some hints.
Don’t even think of trying one of these with an American malt. Too much protein, too little flavor. Get a good English pale ale malt, which is kilned to about twice the color of a pils malt and adds worlds of flavor. Marris Otter is the most prized. It’s a traditional, low-yield variety used by some of the top-ranked breweries in England, but other English varieties will do nicely.
Correct Water Chemistry
Pale beers with more than modest hopping will be abrasive and astringent if made with the alkaline carbonate water found in the central United States. It’s a complicated topic, but well worth the effort to understand whether you’re mashing or using extract. If in doubt, toss into your water a couple of teaspoons of gypsum; boil; then decant, leaving the chalky stuff behind.
Traditional, Low-Alpha Hops
East Kent Goldings are the most prized, but other varieties can be delightful as well. Avoid anything over an alpha acid content of about seven. Many brewers have been experimenting with “first wort” hopping, in which a portion of the bittering hops is added to the wort as soon as it collects in the kettle. Surprisingly, this enhances hop flavor rather than bitterness, and it should improve your bitter as well as your pils.
Yeast Is a Major Player
In the old days, breweries constructed bizarre contraptions for encouraging the propagation of top-cropping yeasts—the Burton Union system is still in use at Marstons. British yeasts, used at appropriate temperatures, display a range of often-dramatic personalities: woody, nutty, malt-accentuating, fruity, and so on. This is a good opportunity for a club experiment. Brew a batch and let everybody ferment a gallon with a different yeast, then compare.