In British rock icon Pete Townsend’s song entitled “Misunderstood,” one line is “I wanna be misunderstood, I wanna be feared in my neighborhood.” The term “bitter,” as applied to beer, carries such a misunderstanding. Bitterness may be desirable with certain styles, but bitter as a noun may invite skepticism among the uninitiated.
Best from a cask, but no stranger to bottles, bitter is the most common real ale in its homeland of England.
The family of beers known as “bitters” is nothing more than a type of pale ale, hardly overwhelming in its bitterness. Bitters are, at their simplest, definitive session beers. The name arose as a way to distinguish them from their often sweet and under-hopped contemporaries. The lineage is the same as pale ale, its modern representatives easily distinguished from the über-hopped, aromatic pale ales and IPAs. Best from a cask, but no stranger to bottles, bitter is the most common real ale in its homeland of England.
English brewers, originators of what we refer to today as pale ale and bitter, were the last of European brewers to adopt hops. Until Flemish immigrants introduced hops to England in the 16th century, fermented beverages were flavored with spice and herb mixtures, or “gruit,” and known as ale. Once hops were accepted in brewing, the name was changed to “beer” to discern the product from ales. Superior in flavor and quality due to the antiseptic hops, beer replaced ale as the beverage of choice.
The most common brews of the 17th century in England were porters and stouts, with few beers resembling pale ale. Pale beers were simply paler. Sketchy malting resulted in dark, often smoky, malt that was the base for the porters and stouts. Some deft maltsters were making relatively pale malt in the early 18th century, but it was expensive, leaving the proletariat to consume the rougher dark ales. The designation “ale” made its way back into the nomenclature to distinguish these from the darker brews. “Bitter ale” was similarly used, as the paler brews were more reliant on hops for their character.
The Industrial Revolution made pale malt affordable, and pale ales supplanted dark ales in popularity, due in part to novelty and in part to drinkability. A preference for trendy glassware versus opaque drinking vessels also contributed to its repute. Brewers could no longer subject the public to murky, substandard wares.
London brewer Mark Hodgson capitalized on both the export business and fondness for pale ales by producing a brew that could be sent to troops in India. Beer lovers know this as the invention of India pale ale, which matured on the extended sojourn. Plain pale ales and bitters, those of medium strength but with a nice hop smack, nevertheless, were produced to various strengths to slake the thirst of pub-goers all across England. House brews were kept in the cellar or shipped locally to minimize handling and maximize freshness and profitability. Taxation was based on the gravity of the beer, necessitating the production of brews of modest potency.