By David Brumley

Perhaps the most famous of British beer styles, Bitter or Pale Ale was originally developed at the end of the 19th century. Pale beers had become possible following the use of coke to roast malts, whereas previously wood had been used, which scorched the malt and resulted in darker beers.

The term Bitter was coined due to the flavour of the beers, which were more heavily hopped than the Milds and Porters available at the time, producing a more bitter flavour. Another differentiation from Mild and Porter was that Bitter could be served younger as it did not require ageing once brewed. In the 19th century the terms Bitter and Pale Ale were interchangeable, often now the beer on cask is referred to as Bitter whilst the bottled version is called Pale Ale.

Bitter was initially developed in Burton upon Trent, where the sulphate-rich hard water was suited to the style utilising British hops, typically the Fuggles and Golding varieties from Kent. London water was not suited to the beer, although in time brewers were able to treat it to make London Bitter taste similar to Burton Bitter, a process known as Burtonisation. Despite this, the Bitters brewed in the two locations were slightly different.

Bitter began to be popular in the 1830s and 1840s helped by the development of machine-made glassware, which meant that the beer could be seen and as the colour of Bitter was attractive it helped it gain in popularity.

Bitters are characterised by a solid malt backbone with the hops giving balance resulting in an easy drinking, sessionable beer. They are light yellow to light copper in colour, and have low levels of carbonation. Their style, which helped to inspire the American Craft Beer scene, incorporates several different beers that vary according to their strength, such as Ordinary Bitter, Best Bitter and Extra Strong Bitter.

Other styles may come and go, but in Britain Bitter is still king. Whilst even the popularity of IPAs declined in the 20th century (before recovering) Bitter did not and has continued to be popular to this day.


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