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Updated: Jul 29, 2019

Bitter is the foundation stone of contemporary British cask-conditioned ale. It developed from the pale ale style and became popular in the early 20th century.

At the turn of the century, brewers were fighting for profits and expanding their estates. They found that 'running beers’ were far cheaper to brew than the erstwhile porters, stouts, IPA (India Pale ale Ale) and Old Ale which had to be stored for much longer. Bitter was ready for drinking after only a few days in the pub cellar. Also, the development of crystal malt meant rich, nutty characteristics could be easily be added to the beer. Bitter became as traditional as fish & chips. That's something to be celebrated, we think.

But bitter varies in taste and strength. It can be confusing for the uninitiated. There’s best bitter and well, just, ‘ordinary’ bitter. It can be straw like in colour, deep amber, bronze, copper, russet or red. Standard bitters range from 3.4% to 4% abv while best should, technically at least, be between 4.1%abv and 5.0%abv, before jumping into the heady premium bitters.

Standard bitters offer malty, biscuity, fruity, peppery, grassy, herbal and, yes, bitter notes from pale malt with a little crystal and, more often than not, traditional 'gentle' English hops such as Fuggles and Goldings. Sometimes, these days, there's the addition of a more exotic hop or two for a modern twist. Best ales are more often than not brewed with the same ingredients as the standard, but stronger and generally with a more malty body and sweetness. Brewing sugars may be added too and the bitterness level might be higher to balance that malty sweetness, but not necessarily. The ‘rules’ are often broken.

Further to our last blog, decrying the move by marketers away from the ‘bitter’ moniker to the rather bland ‘amber’ sobriquet, here we take a wee look at six ales of several hues you may come across with us that still dare to say their name. Try 'em.

Coach House Coachmans Best Bitter (3.7%abv): We love the clip for this tipple. It’s a beer in the traditional English bitter style from the talented Coach House team. While this copper coloured ale has a little less punch than some ‘bests’ it is still classical. The home-grown Admiral hop is the star of the show - to offer gentle citrus and orangey notes with a hint of herbal spice and later a decent bitterness. Simply a lovely, slightly understated, tipple that those sturdy Coachmen would find very quaffable after a long and bumpy journey. Why not climb aboard?

Acorn Barnsley Bitter (3.8%abv): Ayup, this is a beer from the South Yorkshire town that gave us such delights as, Michael Parkinson, Kes, the Barnsley chop and er… Arthur Scargill! Acorn Brewery, founded in 2003 by Lancastrian Dave Hughes, has in recent years put Barnsley well on the beer map. This brew marries the yeast strain used by the original Barnsley Brewery of the 19th century with Maris Otter malt and English hops. Top beer author Pete Brown, another pretty well known son of Barnsley, gets ecstatic: ‘the drinkability of session beer with a dark richness, a hint of chocolate and red berry fruit – beer that Yorkshire does better than anywhere else,” he has stated. Silver winner at the Great British Beer Festival 2006 it was also voted best Yorkshire’s best standard bitter at the Tykes’ top Oakwood 2008 Beer Festival. And by ’eck lad, that’s summat..

Hawkshead Bitter (3.7%): Just look how the pumpclip proudly shouts out ‘bitter’ here, confounding the marketing theory that drinkers don’t like to see the ‘b’ word.The original brewery was set up by former BBC World Service correspondent Alex Brodie in 2002, when he was ready for a beer after many years roving the globe. He opened a modest seven-barrel brew length plant at the head of the glorious Esthwaite Water and kicked off with this great session tipple. Pale, hoppy and fruity it’s brewed with Slovenian Styrian hops to give a distinctive slightly elderflower aroma and a long dry and bitter finish. It went so well that Alex still couldn’t stay put. He expanded to a tailor made 20 barrel kit at Staveley, near Kendal. Alex recently sold out and retired, so now he just pops in the new brewery for a pint of his favourite bitter

Bathams Bitter 4.2%: This is a bit of a well-kept ale secret while simultaneously legendary. Straw coloured bitter from a sixth generation brewer buried deep in the Black Country, you will hardly find it outside of the West Midlands. That said, I first came across it in the Nag’s Head in Great Malvern ( – a great cask ale house – where it is the resident ale. Northdown and Goldings hops combine with pale malt to provide a lovely easy drinking cask ale, bittersweet on the first note but with a complex dry hoppy bitterness. You know after the first gulp that you will be having another – and another… and….sheer joy!

Founded in the 1800s by Daniel Batham, for seventy years the Victorian tower brewery brewed only the much loved mild ale. But those lucky Black Country drinkers have been quietly quaffing this bitter delight since the 1950s. Lucky them.

Thornbridge Lord Marples (4%abv)

This ‘traditional bitter’ is named after the Sheffield lawyer George Marples who had aristocratic aspirations at the turn of the 19th century. George put a lot of cash into Thornbridge Hall, the historic Derbyshire pile and gave himself a title. Today Thornbridge houses the original brewery (there’s also a new one now at Bakewell) created when business couple Jim and Emma Harrison took on the renovation of what had become a very ailing property. It is, they say, a classic British ale with ‘all the nobleness and elegance you could wish for’. But it still has the Thornbridge ‘twist’ that has brought the innovative brewing team a juggernaut load of awards since launch in 2005. Crystal, chocolate, caramalt and pale ale malts are joined by traditional Goldings hops for a malty brew with caramel and honey notes and a long lasting but easy bitterness. His Lordship would be well pleased.

Station Bitter (3.9%abv) Aussie Shane Parr first got a taste for British beer while dallying here on his world tour – and then met his future wife Alison. Back in Oz, the call of cask-ale - and Alison - was so strong he returned to Shropshire to commence brewing. They married and in 2007 launched Stonehouse Brewery, at Weston, Oswestry. The brewery stands alongside the Cambrian Railway, the inspiration for the first brews. As the inaugural tipple, Station Bitter put them on the right track for success. This is an easy drinking full bodied beer, with fruity hops and roasted malt and a hint of chocolate, that won’t land you in the sidings before the end of your journey. It’s their biggest seller and won many awards. Ok it does say amber in the description on the clip, but it is still named

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Interesting piece. I have noticed during this year an increase in good and tasty beers up to 4% and see it as a welcome move. To me there has been too much emphasis in recent times on strength rather than a good 'session' style.

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