In defence of bitter


I believe the very first beer I ever drank was decanted from a can. I can’t remember where or when it was or even which country I was in. I do recall the sterile odour of copper and I didn’t like it. It reminded me of the sensation of putting batteries in my mouth. If it was purloined like my first warming taste of Bailey’s Cream, then it was probably by me sipping the dregs from the bottom of an adult’s glass. Their supervisory skills had likely been “relaxed” by the same lubricant. 

My next clear beer memory puts me in double figures. A slightly older family member had been successful in buying a bottle of Guinness from a garage. We smuggled the contraband down a side alley and actually poured it out into each other’s cupped hands! That taste was different. I recall a taste akin to chocolate or coffee cake and a moussy body and thinking that it didn’t taste like beer. It had been black in the bottle but light brown and sticky in our hands which we continued to lick clean after the bottle emptied. 

I also remember some funny looking bottles of Vorboden Vrucht, La Becasse and Leffe in a fridge at home. I was fortunate in that my folks had lived in Belgium and my dad had kept his taste for its beers. But those were stronger characters and would be discovered later in life and an article for another time.

We journey forwards to an appreciation that started a few years later: I was fortunate to be exposed to a very positive influence: Brakspears Brewery – originally based in Henley-upon-Thames in Oxfordshire (it was later taken over by Wychwood Brewery which in turn now belongs to the Marstons Brewery portfolio). The ale in question was a bitter.

It seems that bitter in Britain is becoming unstuck. Throughout my life it has been shorthand for British beer. It’s been the brown/amber/golden pint that constitutes the default beer when a customer doesn’t specify. It almost became extinct, was resurrected and propagated but is rapidly being seen as boring and being associated more and more with the past.

As with all cask beer, we have the problem of beer being out of condition – obviously a cellaring and demand issue. A highly hopped American style IPA might retain enough of its fruity citrus personality after a few days past its best. Likewise a chocolate stout may still be sweet enough to drink after a week – particularly if both these beers have a high ABV. The softly spoken but exquisite balance of the bitter – with its low ABV – suffers completely. Its layers get blurred and it becomes tasteless – often drinking like over dilute squash. I know – I’ve drunk plenty of them. A lot of drinkers who haven’t had the benefit of a good bitter on top form may simply have the “flat” experience and disregard it.


Bitter also has a distinct lack of air miles. Though some types have been emulated in America like Fuller’s ESB, it gets no international takers as a style. Imperial stouts, IPAs, barrel aged beers, saisons and Pilsners and many more are reproduced the world over. Bitter isn’t. You could argue it’s the British climate. Hotter countries would like a beer that’s a bit sharper, cooler, lighter and sexier? Perhaps. But there is a host of European countries with similar climates.

The real problem with bitter is when you try and define what it is. Most beer styles have a feature that identifies them. It might be the bouquet of hops, the intense chocolate, the tart sourness, the crisp refreshment or the alcoholic warmth. Bitter’s stage piece is its balance. It’ll have a sweet malt layer tempered by a bitter layer and an aroma.  Beer should obviously just be about the taste and the experience but bitter’s lack of loud characteristics can leave it sidelined into a corner without a bespoke neon sign.

Another problem is that bitter arose by chance as a style through a vogue for brighter beers to countermand darker ales like porters and milds. It never came about by design and consequently I can’t set any defining lines between what you could call a bitter and what you could call a pale ale or a golden ale other than their appearance or the expedient use of malts. The Brakspears bitter of my teenage years with its sweet honey note could easily be defined as a golden or a blonde ale. If for instance, it were more golden yellow than brown -such as Fuller’s Chiswick Bitter- does it leap out of the bitter category? It need only darken slightly to get reclassified as a stout. I have seen both York Brewery’s Centurion Ghost Ale and Tring Brewery’s Colley’s Dog labeled as stouts but by taste they’re both dark bitters.

I’ve noticed that people talk more and more about balance and less and less about taste when it comes to comparing cask ale to (colder) craft beer. As a huge lover of craft keg I’m not beating that drum. I accept that bitter and kegging don’t make good bedfellows. You don’t get the aroma and cooled down you won’t be able to appreciate each of the components that make up the sum of its parts as well as you would from a well kept cask.

Beer appreciation is better today than it’s ever been. The ingredients and the flavours are cherished, exaggerated and combined. Technology and methods develop to create new tastes. Ice cream equipment has been used to gradually dehydrate liquid through freezing to increase alcohol content. Beers have been seeded with yeast from bizarre sources like beards – look up pogonophobia! They’re pushed up to 1000 bittering units turning the beer opaque from the alpha acids. New adjuncts (other ingredients outside malt, hops, water and yeast) have been tried like chipotle, fair trade chocolate, jellyfish and sheep bones.

In the current climate of massive hops, added aromatic layers from barrel aging in spirit casks, bodies made with 10 different malts and beer/apple/wine hybrids, where does the humble bitter’s USP come in? It would never survive the boardroom in an episode of the apprentice. Bitter just isn’t like that. 

A good balanced bitter is subtle rather than dull. When I get my hands on a well conditioned pint, I can usually smell a sweet malt dimension or a floral/woody/zesty hop aroma. Roll it around the tongue a bit and you may get notes of plum, leather or blackcurrant. The malt is often like rich tea biscuit or caramel. There might be an added bitterness in the aftertaste that exacerbates the next mouthful. These notes might not register high on the taste Richter scale but they each complement each other and each good bitter is a different combination. There might also be the smoky acridity of a bonfire or a vanilla sweetness. No one layer rises up to dominate in good bitters. It’s more like the satisfaction you get from fresh olive bread. The components are delicious but restrained. It’s simple but good for the soul. 

To me there’s another benefit comes about through bitter’s calm harmony: as more of your senses get wrapped up in a certain bitter, you end up forming deep connections between the subtle flavours and the local surroundings. I get these associations from different bitters across the country. The Brakspears Bitter I started on still gives me thoughts of Oxfordshire, my youth and honey (apis mellifera on the logo – the power of suggestion?). Woodfordes Wherry still makes me think of apricots and red sunsets on the Norfolk mudflats. Chiltern Ale tastes of marmalade, burning spring wood and conjures up glowing fields of oil seed rape. Your senses are all plugged in together like this and subtlety seems to be the key.

If the condition is good and the beer is sparkling from good casking, than bitter is one of the most divine beers. Each level improves with the drinking. They get into your happy zones through osmosis but you need to give them the time. Also, you might notice they have a very sessionable ABV so have a chat with the others around the bar – you could drink quite a few of these.

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