All About Beer Magazine - Volume 22, Issue 3
July 1, 2001 By

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.

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.

Great Malt

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.

Proper Fermentation Temperature

As temperatures rise, yeast produces more flavor. Most English ale yeasts do their best work in the mid to upper-sixties. Below 60 degrees F, they tend to conk out; above that they can produce too much of a good thing, such as fusels, esters and the like. The temperature factor can be easy or hard to arrange, but you’re never going to perfect your bitter without licking this one.

Perfect condition

A great deal of the easy drinkability of bitter is the result of low levels of carbonation. Excessive carbon dioxide not only swells up your belly, but also masks malt and hop flavors. Serving temperatures of about 55 degrees F make the beer drinkable yet flavorful.

Bitter is a term properly applied to draft beer, but bottled versions can be just as delicious and sometimes more practical. Use less carbonating sugar when prining than you normally would. Typical homebrewed ale might contain 3/4 cup of prining sugar. For bitters, half a cup, or slightly less, will suffice.

An Intriguing Adjunct

Use a delicious crystal malt, a touch of home-roasted amber, a non-malt ingredient like torrefied (puffed) wheat, a little golden syrup or demerara sugar. Some add nuances of flavor; others, like wheat or flaked barley, enhance the head-forming properties.

And, Finally

Practice, practice, practice. Although your first one will be enjoyable enough, great bitter is possible only after you’ve worked out the kinks, polished the rough edges, and added a few surprises to make the style your own. I have heard of brewers who have put everything on hold for a year or two to concentrate on this one style, with the thought that all their brewing will the better for it. And they’re right.

I’ll add a note on serving. Traditionally, the brewery ships the cask to the pub with the fermentation still active. While the beer is working, a porous soft spile is kept in the hole in the bung, and excess carbon dioxide gas is allowed to escape. When this activity slows, the brewer replaces the soft spile with a hard one, trapping the gases in the beer. During this time, the yeast settles, with or without the aid of a fining agent such as isinglass. For serving, the spile is removed, and beer is either drained by gravity, or pumped up to the tap by means of hand pump. Elegant and expensive, hand pumps add atmosphere but don’t affect the flavor of the beer in any way.

This is easy to duplicate in the home brewery. Allow the fermentation to finish in a carboy, rack into a Cornelius with a dose of priming sugar. Keep the keg sealed, and if possible, monitor the pressure with a gauge on the gas inlet. A range of 7 to 9 PSI is ideal. To serve by gravity, position the keg horizontally, with the liquid fitting at the bottom, and attach a hoseless gas fitting to vent it. If you have a beer engine, you can leave the keg vertical. Your beer will be brighter if you saw off the bottom 1 inch of the dip tube inside to keep from continuously drawing up the settling yeast.

With these arrangements, air will enter the beer, encouraging contamination. If your beer will be served within a week, this is not a problem, but if you want to savor the brew for a longer, you must make other arrangements.

CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale, Britain’s ale watchdogs) has done research indicating that the addition of a little carbon dioxide gas during serving actually keeps the beer more palatable. Dogma prevents them from encouraging this practice commercially. I recommend attaching gas at a low pressure—5 PSI— while serving, then disconnecting it when you’re done for the day, so the beer won’t soak up any additional gas.

No time to bore you with a recipe. You’ve got a lot of work to do!