Matt’s Myriad of Beer Styles #11 – Bitter

Having covered off quite a few of the less common styles in this column, I thought it was time to cover the one that is probably most associated with Great Britain – Bitter.

At the tail of the 19th century, brewers and their shareholders were keen to improve their cash flow and make a turn on their beer more quickly. As such, they moved away from porters and India Pale Ales, which often needed to be stowed away for months, and came up with “running beer”.

Scientific advancement in the understanding of yeast was key in this development. Pure yeast strains meant the fermentation could be better controlled, which enable the beer to “drop bright” and be served after only a couple of days in the cellar. “Running beers” are what we now know as real ale and this type of beer came to dominate the market in the 20th century.

Mild was initially the market leader, but a new, lighter beer – part of the wider Pale Ale family – soon caught up. The shorter secondary fermentation meant that the beer lacked the maturity that drinkers demanded, so brewers added Crystal malt and more hops (usually British varieties such as Fuggle, Challenger and Target for bitterness and Golding for aroma).

This Crystal gave the beers a rich, nutty and biscuity character and the bronze and copper colours that we now associate with what then became known as Bitter.

By today’s standards, Bitters aren’t actually that bitter at all, as the hop content and varieties are quite modest, but back in the day the beer was distinctly more bitter than mild, so the name stuck. A pint of bitter in a traditional pub is now high up on the “To Do” list of many overseas visitors to the UK, such is its intrinsic link with Great Britain, and I am sure the style does taste bitter to those not used to hops.

Generally speaking, Standard/Ordinary/Session Bitters are  3.6% to 4.0% ABV, Best Bitters (or Special Bitters) are 4.1% to 4.7% ABV and Premium Bitters (or Strong Bitters or Extra Special Bitters) are 4.8% and above. Confusingly, many bitters under 4.1% are labelled “Best” when they aren’t Best Bitters. As such, the two styles are often just referred to as Bitter.

Sadly, the word Bitter seems to have fallen out of fashion in the last few years and there seems to be reluctance from brewers to use the word, even when their beers are Bitters. Thankfully, many of our local brewers continue to brew the brown stuff and champion the style.

Examples of Standard Bitters include Great Yorkshire Classic (4.0%), Half Moon Old Forge Bitter (3.8%), Helmsley Yorkshire Legend (3.8%), Jolly Sailor Bullseye Bitter (3.8%), and Yorkshire Heart Hearty Bitter (3.7%). Best Bitters include Half Moon Striker (4.8%), Hop Studio XS (5.5%), Jolly Sailor Golden Boots (4.1%), Rudgate Battle Axe (4.8%), Treboom Kettle Drum (4.3%), and Yorkshire Heart JRT Best Bitter (4.2%). So there you are. Plenty of reasons to indulge yourselves in this staple style this summer.

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