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.
Bitter or Pale Ale?
There is some discrepancy regarding when pale ales and bitters could be considered separate styles. Some historians look back just 60 years or so, while others point to brewing records from about 150 years ago, when the product was referred to as “bitter ale.” The variance is minimal, or non-existent in some cases, and some would point to the manner of dispensing as the decisive factor. On draft, it would be a bitter; bottled, a pale ale.
This is not to say that bitters are not available in bottles, as many are. Brewers can make very similar beers and call one a bitter and one a pale ale.
What of a bottle-conditioned bitter? It is a live beer, on yeast, and naturally carbonated. Certainly a cask version would be different and evolve somewhat over its brief life span. These are simply additions to the mosaic of beerdom, which allows even a regular beer such as bitter some noble discussion. Such is the romance of simplicity and authenticity. It is best left to the purists to ascertain.
The Essence of Bitter
Like all traditional English ales, the very soul of bitter is malt. Robust in character, English pale ale malt is revered by brewers for its solid contribution to the wort and its ease of utilization. Slightly fuller in color than two-row or pilsner malt, pale ale malt has a palpable firmness that adds dimension to even the simplest of brews. As bitters run from gold-amber to full copper in color, an augmentation with specialty malts is in order. Lighter versions make use of minimal specialty malts, while darker ones rely on more, or simply small amounts of very dark malts. The color-enhancing malts are crystal on the light end of the spectrum to black malt on the high end. They contribute flavor, mouthfeel and nuance. A light to medium caramel memo is a bitter requisite. It is not unusual, and wholly acceptable, to include adjunct in the brew. Most commonly, flaked maize is used, but sugar is also employed.
Implicitly, a significant dose of bittering hops is the norm. To a hophead, it may seem a bit restrained, but the measure is not meant to dominate the beer, only to urge the balance toward hops. The hop character is classically British in the authentic versions, with East Kent Goldings or Fuggles the most utilized, with Target and Challenger less often. American ale hops are even gaining favor in some breweries. The impression should be one of a lingering herbal and drying bitterness, with minimal flavor and aroma. Cask versions get a bit of aromatic dry-hopping in the cask, but it imparts little flavor.
Were one to split hairs on the bitter versus pale ale debate, the main contention would be in the hop flavor and aroma. Most would agree that pale ale has more hop flavor and aroma, due to the destination of the brew. Those made for bottling, pale ale, can have no dry hopping but a late addition to the kettle. The hot wort imparts some hop flavor. As the addition is copious compared to cask versions, the aroma is more pronounced. This is not a steadfast contingency, so once again, debate if you like, but most certainly, enjoy. Another case could be made that bitter is marginally maltier.
English beers have an immutable character. Subtleties are contributed by water condition and yeast, and the product is, to this palate, sometimes reminiscent of minerals. Often hard water is used for brewing pale ales and bitters, which can contribute to the “hard” character, but it is deeper than that. Centuries of selective yeast culling might be a more significant contributor, and perhaps many of the strains are related in one way or another. Fruitiness is yet another by-product that one would expect in an English bitter, not overwhelming, but simply another strand in the filigree.
Bitters are often pigeonholed into one of three different classifications based on original gravity and alcohol content, with a concomitant hop rate that puts them within a respective balance. The fairest of the lot is ordinary bitter. With an alcohol by volume (ABV) rating of less than 4 percent, ordinaries are perfect session beers. They are dark gold to copper in color and could be considered a summer beverage. With plenty of malt backbone to back up the hops, an ordinary bitter is proof that a beer need not be big to be beautiful. Hop rates run up to about 35 International Bittering Units (IBU).
The middle wrung on the bitter ladder is occupied by special, or best, bitters. Less than 4.6 percent ABV, it is simply a strong version of an ordinary—still a session beer, a little more filling, and with a tad more malt character. Most of the bitters fall into this category. Up to 40 IBU helps offset the more lavish character of a best bitter.
At the top of the hierarchy are extra special or strong bitters. They range from 4.6 to as much as 6 percent ABV and over 50 IBU. Still very quaffable, they generally have a stiff maltiness and some more complexity owing to the sheer increase in raw materials. Sometimes offered as a seasonal, these are very satisfying brews.
While perfectly clear, refined beer is desirable in many circles, savvy beer drinkers know that notable beer dresses in many suits. Unfiltered, unpasteurized brew is seen as a natural, unadulterated product. Bottle-conditioned beer has its own appeal and devotees. But the zenith of natural beer is real ale, its proponents unwavering in devotion.
The term “real ale” alone denotes a set of guidelines that must be followed to earn the designation. A living entity that must be served while fresh, real ale is conditioned in a cask just long enough to allow a dose of priming sugar to bestow gentle carbonation. Finings help pull yeast out of suspension during the cask fermentation. Often, real ales are dry-hopped right in the cask to add hop aroma.
The kegs are kept at cellar temperature, somewhere in the mid-50s Fahrenheit, and dispensed with a beer engine, or hand pump, at the bar. Some are dispensed via gravity alone. The ale must be served precisely when it reaches its proper carbonation and maturity level. The cask is vented so oxygen is let into the keg. A keg of real ale will change subtly over a few days as a result of the oxygen and a continuation of conditioning. Technical skill and art meld to create this ephemeral delight.
Most ale served this way in Britain is a bitter. The complex and soft caramel malt character, combined with a quenching hop bitterness and a fresh hop aroma, is righteous indeed. Bitter as a session beer adds to the sociability and ambiance.
The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) is a powerful consumer organization that keeps a watchful eye on the real ale culture in Britain. They rescued the brewing custom, which was in danger of being snuffed by larger breweries, over 30 years ago. CAMRA publishes several guides to real ale pubs, which are found all over Britain, and stages numerous festivals. Check their calendar before you travel.
Real ale is catching on in the United States and Canada, though porters, stouts, and pale ales are found as often as bitters. The popular Real Ale Festival is held in Chicago every year.
North American breweries produce hundreds of these gems, and brewpubs also favor them. This is expected, considering the North American brewers’ adeptness at making pale ales. Some common brands are Redhook ESB, Rogue Brutal Bitter, Younger’s Special Bitter, Anderson Valley Belk’s ESB, Lakefront Organic ESB, Left Hand Sawtooth Ale, and Shipyard Old Thumper, to name a few.