If one were asked to name the definitive American craft beer style, they would pick pale ale. Ask a Brit the same question, and their retort would be bitter, dispensed from a cask. They are staples among those who prefer a pint of something that is neither overwhelming nor boring. English bitters are clearly the choice in that genial and romantic ritual of a pint at the pub. Pale ale and bitters are closely entwined, now and historically, and for some 200 years or more in Britain, were essentially one and the same. Today they are often distinguished solely by method of dispense. There is something about bitters’ affable profile; bright ale perfectly suited to lively conversation, unencumbered by abrasive edges, yet bold, expressive and flavorful enough to draw us to the draught. Hops up front with enough malty backbone and yeast character to offer some personality is what defines a great bitter. Add to that the freshest and most natural offering from a well-kept cask, and you will experience a pint of perfection.
The term "bitter ale" was created to distinguish them from lightly hopped mild ales.
Brewers have only been using hops for about 1,000 years, and in Britain, since the 16th century. London water was not particularly suited to hoppy beers anyhow, but darker, sweetish ales instead. Within a few decades though, hopped beers made converts of English brewers. Nearby Kent became England’s premier hop growing region within short order. How, then, are hops germane to the lineage of bitters? The name denotes a reliance on hops, but that is more an issue of comparison, as bitter and pale ale evolved as an alternative to the under-hopped status quo. Even so, it would be nearly 300 years before bitter would become the hands-down favorite among the Brits, a result of modern grassroots pugnacity spun from a longing for traditional ale.
Pale beers were not even possible until coke was invented in 1669. Until then, wood and straw were primarily used to dry green malt, but they were excessively smoky. Coke, coal without its noxious compounds, was cleaner and easily tempered. Quite expensive, coke-fired pale malt was reserved for the affluent tipple, and used mostly for well-hopped stock beers, left to age for a year or more. These stock beers were sent to servants and military in India, the most-savvy exporter being George Hodgson of London. By the early 19th century competing brewers of Burton upon Trent in The Midlands were getting busy making similar pale ales. Burton water was rich in calcium sulfate, and its effect on hoppy pale ales was astonishing. It gave a clean, fully hopped character, a light and clear complexion, and served as yeast nutrient, ensuring swift, full attenuation. This broadened the sensory gulf between brown and pale ale, and made those of Burton superior to those of greater London. Competition flourished, commercial railways were built and the brewing efficiency of pale malt was shown to be cost-effective, adding more to its growing popularity. Brits though, still overwhelmingly preferred the mass-produced, financially connected and publican-dominated dark brew, porter. Slowly however, pale beers gained ground on porter, a trend that would continue for another 150 years.