What is an English bitter?
A modern bitter describes a subset of English pale ales that are gold to dark amber in colour, ranging in strength from 3% to 7%. The description of bitter is fairly vague, mostly because regional differences and variation between breweries make it difficult to precisely define.
In the early 19th century, the term “bitter” was used to describe a pale ale, especially those brewed in Burton-upon-Trent, in Staffordshire, England. This small-town brew was relatively light-coloured, with a clean, clear appearance and a strong hop presence. The quality of bitter beer improved drastically around this time, with increased access to lightly-kilned malt and a massive influx of new breweries.
Through the 19th century, the small town of Burton became a world-famous brewing site due to its natural water supply, containing a high level of soft sulphate minerals, called gypsum. This hard water, high in dissolved minerals, helped to increase the hop aroma and bitterness of beer, while providing nutrients for brewing yeast and aiding in the removal of unwanted proteins from malted grains. Gypsum water is especially ideal for brewing many types of pale ales, including IPAs.
Bitter/Pale Ale v Mild
The distinction between bitter and pale ale has always been ambiguous, where the two terms were often used interchangeably. By the early 1800s, pale ale was commonly referred to as bitter, amid the rise in popularity of the style. Bar patrons used the term “bitter” to distinguish paler, hoppy brews from the darker, sweeter milds, which were also prevalent at the time. The nickname caught on, and eventually brewers were more or less forced to embrace the term “bitter”.
During the 1930s and beyond, English bitters became very fashionable because consumer palettes shifted away from the dark-style ales. For much of the 19th century, bitters would compete with porters and milds, briefly achieving the top spot, before public preference shifted to lagers in the 1960s.
Bitter: A Subset of English Pale Ale
The family of British bitters grew out of English pale ales in the late 1800s, classified as ordinary, best or special, premium or strong bitter, by the relative strength of the beer. Several regional variations of bitter exist, ranging from darker, sweeter versions served with nearly no head to brighter, hoppier, paler versions, and everything in between.
Bready, biscuity, or lightly toasty malt complexity are common traits of a modern English bitter, with mild to moderate fruitiness. Hop aroma and flavour can range from low to moderate, typically imparting a floral, earthy, resinous, or fruity character. In terms of general style guidelines, while the beer may be fairly malt-balanced, the malt and hops should not override the overall bitterness of the beer. Bitterness should also never completely overpower malt, esters and hops.
A good English bitter has the ability to achieve balance and complexity, all the while maintaining its status as an easy drinking brew. It really is the perfect all-season brew.
(Leah is a Toronto based freelance writer as well as Head Beer Weenie and a server at C’est What)