Us On the Subject of Bitter

Adnams sign on brewery wall, Southwold.

Last autumn we wrote 1,500 words on bitter for the American magazine Beer Advocate and that article has just been made available free online.

For us, this was pretty much like writing about water, or bread, or the sun — that is difficult despite, or maybe because of, the apparent simplicity and familiarity of the subject.

Anyway, we were quite happy with how it turned out, and people on Twitter seem to be enjoying it. Here’s a good bit:

Today in the UK, Bitter is not a strictly governed style and beers bearing that appellation might be golden to red, drily bitter or honey-sweet, rich in hop perfume or rather austere. Depending on strength, they might be called “Ordinary,” “Best,” or “Extra Special Bitter (ESB).” It is easier, perhaps, to say what Bitter is not. Once the classy alternative to Mild, then the conservative alternative to trendy lager, it is now the preferred choice of the anti-hipster—not Double IPA, and definitely not fruit-infused barrel-aged Saison.

And asking nosy questions paid off here, too:

“Southwold Bitter is still our best-selling cask beer and its place as No. 1 is probably secure for some time yet, but it has been caught up by Ghost Ship [a hoppy Golden Ale] in the last few years,” Fergus Fitzgerald explains. “When I joined Adnams 10 years ago, Bitter was about 70 percent of what we did, but it’s now closer to 40 percent as we have expanded the range of styles we brew, and as tastes broaden.”

Sadly, since we wrote it last summer Fuller’s Chiswick Bitter has ceased to be a regular brew (Twitter) and is now seasonal only. When it comes to writing about specific brands beer is a moving target.

13 thoughts on “Us On the Subject of Bitter”

  1. Yorkshire shmorkshire, that’s all I’m saying; you could say much the same things of old-school London bitters, to say nothing of Sussex, Suffolk and South Wales (although that would have involved explaining that Wales isn’t in England).

  2. I enjoyed your article and was glad to see you highlight Lees MPA.

    I haven’t noticed Adnams (or Pride for that matter) much on my increasingly regular trips to Cornwall, which suits me fine when local beers are so good. Have you noticed any change in quality in Adnams over last 10 years or so (I’d put down more to reducing volumes in pubs than brewery) ? Ghost Ship seems much more consistent.

    Cheers

    1. We see Pride and Adnams Bitter occasionally but, to be honest, would tend to avoid them down here. Had a good pint of Pride at the Farmer’s in Penzance a while back so it does happen.

      Don’t think we’ve drunk Adnams often enough over the last decade to form a really solid view of its trajectory. Invariably rough when we had it in London (ditto Black Sheep) but glorious in Southwold. Had the odd good pint elsewhere since.

    1. It’s a rum do. Loved by critics, loved by the brewers, but apparently difficult to sell in pubs. A real shame. As others have pointed out, a bit of marketing wouldn’t have hurt.

  3. Excellent article as all your work. I would remark that in the late 70s-90s at least, bitter also was not a “strictly governed style”. Michael Jackson in his early writings commented on how some bitter had a sweet palate, for example, and colour even then could vary (Boddington and some other beers remained on the light side, for example). He and other observers of the day commented on the great diversity of bitter, something which has been winnowed down due to closures and American influence.

    I would say the thing that united them, and it’s a hard one to pin down especially for Britons given your apt sun analogy, is a particular English taste. A taste very different from American pale ale. I attribute it mainly to English-grown hops, the varieties in use then and still to a degree, and probably also the yeasts. It was a lavish flowery/fruity taste that was (is) hardly retiring and is what entranced the early American visitors like Charlie and Fritz although commercial interpretations on this side diverged quite a bit.

    The malt quality was part of it, but not the main part, as indeed one would expect given the history of pale ale as a style.

    It sounds to me like it is in long decline (market share) but that is what contributed to the gastronomic firmament for beer in the U.K., and not really the U.K., but England specifically.

    Gary

  4. “it is now the preferred choice of the anti-hipster—not Double IPA, and definitely not fruit-infused barrel-aged Saison.”

    I am an anti-hipster!!! Woohoo!!!

    1. “I will drink more session bitter.” – that was my first ‘blogging resolution’ for, wait for it, 2014.

      Ha! I was anti-hip before it was anti-hip to be anti-hip!

      1. The first batch of Bitter 42 at Three Notch’d was brewed in November 2013 – we saw the anti-hipster movement coming….(either that or wanted something we could drink lots of off without falling over, and by we I mean me and the brewer, I don’t work for Three Notch’d).

  5. Great article, so many things I didn’t know about.

    I am fairly newbie in beer culture and don’t fully understand why the bitter beers are better the closer to the brewery, comparing to other types of beer. I have experienced it myself and the taste is definitely different in some cases, but why this happens particularly in these types of beer?

    1. We honestly don’t quite know.

      Probably because, near the brewery, they tend to be fresher and to have experienced less time in trucks and warehouses.

      Possibly also because they’re more likely to have hands-on quality control and intervention if there’s a problem with handling in the pub cellar. Our local large brewery, St Austell, sends its brewers out drinking in pubs around the region so they have a pretty good idea which are looking after their beer well.

      1. Interesting about the quality control. I didn’t know brewers did it.

        And makes sense of course that transport will have an effect, but I would have expect that to happen to other beers such as lagers or craft beers. Maybe also happens to other beers and I am not aware.

        Anyway, thanks for the response!

  6. In the unlikely event you get a chance to try Ticketybrew’s Golden Bitter, don’t pass it up – it’s a classic old-school bitter, very much in the Landlord region (but 3.6%). They’ve done it as a short-run ‘Ticketyfew’ beer (on cask and (I think) in bottle), but I’m hoping it’ll be successful enough to become one of their core beers – it’s certainly good enough.

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