Watching the Olympic Games happening in London made me want to talk about one of my favorite beer styles—English Bitter. Generally a rich copper color, medium body and light carbonation are signatures of this London pub mainstay; however the name Bitter is a bit deceiving. While English hops are an important part of this beer’s flavor, they are not nearly as bitter as its fellow British native, India Pale Ale (IPA) and nowhere near the aggressively bitter American IPA.
It is believed that Bitters were born out of the extremely hoppy India Pale Ale. Around the mid 1800s, British brewers from the Burton-on-Trent area, which had become famous for their IPA’s, began keeping more of the product for domestic sales and thus started dropping the “India” designation and calling it simply Pale Ale. Since these ales were no longer traveling the great distance of IPAs hopping rates were lowered as well. Many of these Pale Ales were bottled and considered “premium” beer. In 1880, the Free Mash Tun Act was passed. One of the provisions of the Act was a tax on high gravity/high alcohol beers such as IPAs, this motivated brewers to produce a milder, lower alcohol beer. Also around this time a malt type called “crystal” had just been developed. Crystal malts would give beer a slightly darker color than pale malt and a caramel, toffee flavor. This would be the birth of Bitter.
While details are sketchy, it is thought that brewers of the time were trying to compete with the very popular dark beers such as porters and dark mild ale. The beer was to be more affordable than Pale and served in casks. Seemingly the idea was to combine the premium identity of pale ales yet have it closely resemble the beer of the common man. It is possible the term “bitter” was used help separate this new style from the well-known “mild” ale, and perhaps tie it to its IPA roots. Bitters usually came in 3 varieties: Ordinary, Best or Special and Extra Special. The basic distinction between them was generally the amount of alcohol they contained and was often noted on the cask as “X” “XX” or “XXX”.
Traditionally Bitters were not only served in casks but conditioned in them as well, meaning the beer was allowed to carbonate naturally in the barrel, this is the reason for their mild carbonation level. The casks were kept in the cellar of the pub and served at cellar temperature which is around 50°-55° F. To the average American this is a bit warm but colder temperatures hide the earthy aroma of the hops and the toffee notes of the crystal malt. There are many excellent Bitters and ESBs available in bottles but look for it on draft and especially hand-pumped or better yet a fresh firkin. Some suggested commercial examples to try are Fuller’s Chiswick or London Pride, Young’s Special or Ramrod and Brakspear Bitter. A local example of a tasty ESB is Stout’s Scarlet Lady from Adamstown, PA. If you’re feeling ambitious below is a recipe to homebrew your own. Cheers!
Ordinary Bitter – makes 5 gallons
- 5 lbs Pale Malt Extract
- 1 lb Crystal Malt (60L)
- 1oz Goldings hops
- 1oz Fuggles hops
- Wyeast London ESB or London Ale yeast
- Burton Water Salts (optional)
- 3 gal bottled water
- ½ cup of corn sugar for priming
- Activate yeast according to instructions
- In a large pot, heat 2 gallons of tap water (and water salts if desired) to 160 degrees, turn off heat
- Place Crystal Malt in a straining bag or cheesecloth and place into heated water for 30 minutes
- Remove bag of malt and let drain into pot for several minutes, turn heat on high
- Add malt extract and bring to a boil, boil for 60 minutes, stir occasionally
- Once water begins to boil, add Goldings hops
- After water has been boiling for 40 minutes, add Fuggles
- After full boil, remove from heat and place pot into a cold water or ice bath to cool down for 20 minutes
- Pour liquid into a clean, sanitized fermenting vessel and top off with bottled water to 5 gallons
- Once liquid has cooled to below 80 degrees add yeast
- Cover fermentor with lid and airlock, let ferment for 7-10 days
- After fermentation, add priming sugar, bottle or keg as desired
- Wait 3-6 weeks and enjoy