Is British bitter being killed off? Long live British bitter.
Updated: Jun 13, 2019
Wherefore the future for our beloved national drink?
British bitter is in crisis. It’s still about in the places I drink in. I sampled an excellent pint of Moorhouse’s Premier Bitter in a posh Cheshire country pub only last week.
This classic northern style balanced bitter, at the session strength of just 3.7%abv, is an old favourite of mine. First brewed in the seventies it seems to be a rare find these days as the ‘Pendle Witches’ brewer busily brews more hop forward tipples to catch up with the 'crafty' market, but perhaps they still selling plenty in Lancashire.
As Beer Tours UK knows well, there are still other splendid bitters from smaller brewers – Stonehouse Station Bitter immediately springs to mind.
Yet Roger Protz, Britain’s elder statesman of beer commentary, believes we should all be very worried about bitter. In the latest Camra (Campaign for Real Ale) What’s Brewing newspaper, Roger lambasts some of our biggest traditional brewers - Marston’s (Pedigree Bitter), Shepherd Neame (Britain’s oldest brewery –Spitfire Premium Bitter) Wadworth’s (6X Traditional Draught Bitter) and Fuller’s (London Pride Best Bitter) are named among others - for quietly, and rather insidiously, attempting to bury bitter. A dastardly plot to rebrand Britain’s unique and historic style as ‘amber ale’. Or in Fuller’s case ‘original’.
What, pray, is amber ale? It’s a vague descriptive colour yes, some bitter is somewhat of that hue but much isn’t. It sounds wishy-washy. Original gives no clue at all to the style. Roger is incandescent. So am I.
Bitter helped us through two world wars, kept the nation refreshed during the fifties austerity and squared up to the assault of that new-fangled lager stuff in the late sixties and seventies.
I have a deeply affectionate memory of my first pint of bitter drunk in a pub called the Dragoon, buried deep in the gritty terraced streets of industrial Burnley - my home town. Long gone, this was truly a community pub, packed every Saturday. Mild or bitter? No tasters and no dithering, especially for an underage lad trying his luck. I ordered Massey’s bitter, just like my grandad. They would have laughed at ‘a pint of amber ale please?’ (and I would have been thrown out).
And what a lip smacking, bronze coloured, scrumptiously bitter pint that was. Burnley was a ‘bitter town’ and Massey’s – sadly deceased due to takeover - brewed championship ales. Lovely. But back to Roger and his bitterness over bitter.
Brand managers, in their wisdom, seem to believe that the ‘bitter’ moniker is too frightening for fledgling drinkers. Yet, as Roger points out, in recent years young drinkers have turned to heavily hopped IPAs (India Pale Ale) with bitterness to the fore.
IPA was a style we gave to the world way back in the industrial revolution. It died out as pale lagers emerged. But in recent times it was ‘reinvented’ by the adventurous US craft brewers, using the more aggressive West Coast hops rather than our own cuddly Fuggles & Goldings.
Funnily enough, the same big brewers who are now dumping ‘bitter’ seem to have embraced the new crafty IPA style beers. So why undermine our brewing heritage with amber ale? Couldn’t they just use their considerable marketing muscle to protect British bitter? A joint campaign, maybe something akin to the hugely memorable ‘Tetley Bittermen’ commercials - but more inclusive, obviously. No, I dream.
Low octane lubricant
But I postulate this scenario; could the Americans save the bacon of British bitter? Apparently some brewers in the States are now keen to brew the more gentle British style bitter, including the Yorkshire Square Brewery in California founded by a Yorkshireman. “A wonderful low octane social lubricant as opposed to the rocket fueled IPAs” says one of their punters.
Perhaps, as ‘over here’ we bury our heritage in ‘amber’, ‘over there’ they will resurrect the ‘bitter’ brand. Then, in about six years, say - stay with me here - our own new generation of craft brewers will follow, just as they did with IPAs.
In turn, that will cause our long established brewers to bravely relaunch their bitters - as bitters. Circle firmly squared. ‘A pint of bitter please’ could once again resound throughout our, by then, few remaining pubs. I will drink a pint to that, although, sadly, not with a delicious pint of Massey’s in the old Dragoon.