As a fan of Black Creek Historic Brewery’s IPA, I was delighted to find a batch of Best Bitter in our fridges this morning. The Best Bitter is actually a relative of my cherished IPA. Nineteenth-century brewers developed the India Pale Ale to quench the thirst of soldiers in India; extra hops helped preserve the beer on its long voyage from England. However, a thirst for pale ales was not limited to the colonies; a domestic market had been developing since the century prior.
England was one of the last countries to adopt the use of hops in brewing. Through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, English beers were predominantly browns, porters, and stouts. “Pale ales” were simply slightly paler in colour. The India Pale Ale proved popular, but it was brewed for the colonies. And so, more “pale ales” were brewed to slake thirst at home. This, combined with the increasing popularity of clear glassware (which showed off pale ales’ fine colour) whetted appetites for lighter, more hop-oriented beers.
Besides experimenting with styles, Victorian brewers were also creating large estates of tied pubs. To maximize profits, they sought beers which could be served after only a few days in the cellars. The “bitter” developed from attempts to develop such a pale ale, and by the 1830s, “pale ale” and “bitter” had become synonymous terms in England.
It is unclear when “pale ale” and “bitter” came to designate separate styles of beer. There are references in the Victorian period to “bitter ales” which seem to suggest that pub-goers viewed the bitter as a less hoppy, more restrained pale ale. Indeed, bitters tend oh-so-slightly towards maltiness, whereas pale ales offer more hop flavouring and aroma (though still less than that of the IPA).
Besides this “pale or bitter?” debate, bitters are themselves subdivided into separate categories. The Ordinary Bitter is less than 4% ABV with a dark gold to copper colour. Best Bitters are perhaps best representative of the bitter style, coming in at about 4.5% ABV with more of malt character than its Ordinary counterpart. The Extra-Special Bitter can run anywhere from 4.6-6% and displays the most malt, while still remaining a highly drinkable brew.
Our brewmaster Ed has crafted a fine example of a Best Bitter. It comes in at just under 5% ABV, and he describes it as an easy-drinking beer with a medium gold colour. Slight fruitiness and a hint of herbal English hops balances a malty aroma. This Bitter lives up to its name, with a dry malty caramel finish and a medium-bodied mouthfeel. Overall, this is a summer session beer, perfect if you find the IPA a bit intense. The Best Bitter could be subtitled the “Best British” – Ed used 100% English hops (Admirals and Fuggles, if you’re a fellow hophead!), with a large proportion of English malts as well.
Come try this staple of British beers – before I beat you to it!