British bitters have a definite hop presence, but in a somewhat measured way. You’ll notice the hop flavour, but it sits atop a sweet biscuit base. These beers are not bitter by today’s standards (some Imperial IPAs out there punch you in the face with bitterness). In fact, bitters are well balanced, giving equal profile to the malt, hop, and yeast. It’s a beer designed for sessional drinking—you can enjoy two or three of these in one session and find something interesting in every sip, even the last one.
According to Jeff Alworth, author of The Beer Bible (a must-read for all beer lovers), bitter ales were “delayed until two discoveries made their birth possible: hops and modern kilning techniques.” Before these two discoveries, beer was mostly mild and sweet. Brewers had to rely on herbs and spices to balance their beers. And before the early 17th century, kilning left malt smokey and black. But new technology let maltsers produce pale malts. With pale malts came pale ales, a style within which British bitters find themselves.
The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) tells us that British bitters evolved as a draught product in the late 1800s and are traditionally served as cask ales, very fresh, under no pressure, and at cellar temperatures. Most of the UK-produced stuff we get off the shelves contains a higher ABV (alcohol) and is more highly carbonated than cask products. In fact, most of the UK-produced beers available on draught in North America are sweeter and less hoppy than the cask versions. The BCP sets out guidelines that reflect the “real ale” version of this style (more on that later). While the BCJB classifies bitter as its own style for judging purposes, it is, in fact, virtually in the same category as pale ale. But, since this is a home brewing site, I’ve decided to stick with the BCJB’s classification system to make it easier. Who knows, maybe you’ll want to enter your kick-ass bitter in a brewing competition. If so, best to know what the judges are looking for!
This review would not be complete without a mention of “real ales”. Real ale is defined as ” a natural product brewed using traditional ingredients and left to mature in the cask (container) from which it is served in the pub through a process called secondary fermentation. It is this process which makes real ale unique amongst beers and develops the wonderful tastes and aromas which processed beers can never provide.” The good news, for us home brewers, is that real ales are carbonated by secondary fermentation in the cask – much like the process of fermentation we use for home brewing. Bottle conditioning gives you the same level of carbonation. The stuff you’re making at home is real ale!
Of course, not everyone’s a home brewer. For everyone else (in the UK, at least), a formal group, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) in the UK has been working since 1971 to revive real ale and pubs. The group was founded by four men who were “disillusioned by the domination of the UK beer market by a handful of companies pushing products of low flavour and overall quality onto the consumer.” Someone give these men a medal!
If you want to replicate the “real ale” experience at home, don’t drink your beer as soon as you take it out of the fridge. The proper temperature for a real ale is 55-57°F (13-14°C). That probably seems weird, but you’ll get used to it quickly enough. You’ll also find you’re beer probably tastes much different. That’s a good thing—you’re tasting more of its flavour and character than if you had it right out of the fridge.
If you’re aiming to make the perfect British bitter, you’re target ABV should be in the 4% range, and hovering around 30 units of bitterness (IBUs). It’s easy to drink and perfectly balanced. That means it must have a solid malty foundation. Bitters are the original session ales—born in a country and a time when people spent whole evenings at the pub. People wanted a beer they could sip on for hours without getting drunk or bored. Bitter, being mostly low in alcohol and carrying enormous depth of flavour satisfied that demand.
To brew the style, a recipe should start with a large base of pale malts (we’re talking more than 90%) that could include a touch of crystal malt for a darker hue and added flavour. If you can, get grains that have been floor malted. This is an important British process that ads even more flavour and character to the grain. Floor malting is the traditional method for malting barley and it creates a more flavourful and aromatic product. And if you can, use British hops for that added level of authenticity. If you want to start with a single variety bitter, you’ll want to start with Golding hops. With time, you can augment your recipe with Fuggle, Target, Challenger, Northdown, Progress, or First Gold hops. And if you want to take things up to a whole other level, you’ll even want to change your water. British bitters got their distinctive style from the minerality in the water, most famously in the town of Burton. Burton is famous for having hard water—water with a lot of minerals and salts in it. If you want to replicate that effect, you can add gypsum to mineralize your water appropriately.
Notable Commercial examples
- Fuller’s London Pride. This beer consists of pale, caramel and chocolate malts, Golding, Target, Challenger, and Northdown hops (or Golding and Target if you’re getting the bottled version of the beer). It hits an ABV of 4.1% on cask, or 4.7% in the bottle. As for bittering units, you’re looking at 30 IBUs on cask, 35 IBUs in the bottle.
- Fuller’s ESB. This is the beer that made me fall in love with the style. I rarely have a mass-produced beer, but when I do, it’s usually this one. It is truly a fine beer. It uses the same malts and hops as the London Pride, but is stiffer and more bitter: 5.5% ABV on cask; 5.9% in the bottle, and 35 IBUs on cask; 36 IBUs in the bottle.
- Collingwood Fireside ESB. This is a local favourite of mine. It’ll be tough to find unless you live in Ontario, Canada, but if you’re one of the lucky few, you must give this beer a try. You’ll find notes of toasted nuts, black currant and sweet caramel in this beer, which is on the stiffer end of the style (5.8%).
Make your own
Alright, enough reading! Time to get brewing. This Extra Special Bitter recipe will give you a solid start in the style. Use it as a baseline and adapt it to make it your own. You may want to experiment with more hops or adding gypsum to the water to give it an authentic taste.