What is a Bitter Beer Style Today?

A bitter is an English style of beer that encompassed quite a few different strengths and colors of beer. Often times in the beer world we come up with names for beer styles that don’t often describe the beer very well. But this isn’t the case with the bitter beer style.

For more articles on the different beer styles check our new American Pale Ale Beer Style.

How it all started

A mug of golden color extra special strong bitter beer on a wooden table.
Credit: https://learn.kegerator.com/extra-special-strong-bitter/

English brewers, the originators of Pale Ales and Bitters were the last of Europe’s brewers to adopt the hop as a bittering agent in beer. Up until the arrival of Flemish immigrants in the 16th century. The brewers in England were flavoring their beers with mixtures of herbs and spices called gruit. And all those beers that were flavored that way were referred to as Ale. These Ales were very cloudy, pretty low on alcohol, and came in a variety of flavors.

Once hops were accepted by brewers the new product was referred to as beer. To distinguish it from the gruit-based Ales. Within a generation of two, hop-based beers had almost completely replaced gruit ales. Hops bring an antiseptic quality in addition to their pure bitterness. So not only did the beer taste better but it prevented a lot of microbes from taking up residence in the beer. Making it a more consistent product as well.

The characteristics of bitters

A glass of bitters with a mug of bitter beer style, a wooden cask and a soft pretzel on the sides od the photo.
Credit: https://chilledmagazine.com/add-bitters-to-beer

The most common beers of the 17th and 18th centuries were porters and stouts. These styles are dark, malty, full-bodied, and don’t exactly showcase the bitterness of hops. The reason behind this was that the malting process usually leaves the malts very dark, smokey, and well colored. In the 18th century, some really good malters were producing quality pale malts. But they were generally very expensive for most brewers to use.

Even so, some pale beers were produced and they decided to adopt the old word ale to be different from the darker beers that were all the rage at the time. In a similar way, the phrase bitter ale was used to describe a paler brew that got more of its flavor from the hops.

The Industrial Revolution and the adoption of inventions like the thermometer in the malting process made pale malt much cheaper and more widely available. Suddenly pale ales were overtaking darker beers in popularity all around the British Empire. Pale Ales and Bitter Ales were produced in a variety of strengths and levels of bitterness to satisfy all different kinds of pub-goers. In addition at the time where beer taxes were levied based on the gravity of the wort, the modest alcohol content of pale beers was generally the cheapest option for drinkers.

Different types of bitters

A glass of bitter beer on a table.
Credit: https://vinepair.com/beer-101/english-mild-beer-style-guide/

Looking through the old English brewing records it’s hard to draw a line between what some brewers call the bitter ale and what others call the pale ale. The malt bills and hop additions are pretty similar in most cases. Perhaps the most common distinction brewers made was that the hand-pulled draught casked ales were called bitters. while most bottled ales were called pale ales.

But no matter the history, the heart and soul of the bitter is its malt. English pale malt is revered amongst brewers around the world as it contributes a lot of sugar to the wort. while being very easy to use. Coming in a little darker and more full than the light Pilsner malts of the continent.

Bitters tend to have a slightly more amount of body and malt flavor than their European counterparts. As bitters run from gold, amber to full copper in color. An addition of specialty malt is in order. The goal of a bitter is balance. The hop character is classically English. Most typically with East Kent Goldings, and Fuggles in large amounts. Bitters are often categorized into three groups based on their alcohol content.

  • The most common is the Ordinary Bitter which have ABV under 4%. They are dark gold or copper in color and have plenty of malt balance for the hops.
  • The Special or Best Bitter still under 4.6% ABV. They are a little more filling and have more of a malt character.
  • Extra Special of Strong Bitters range from 4.6 to 6% ABV. They are often deeper caramel color and complex in flavor.

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