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Q&A: Which Are the Best New Wave Takes on Brown Bitter?

Detail from an old beer mat: BITTER!

‘Which new wave micros make what could be considered a quality brown bitter, possibly with just a slight modern twist, that could compare favourably to Harvey’s Sussex Best or Adnams’s Southwold Bitter?’ Paul, Ealing (@AleingPaul)

This question was prompted by our previous Q&A post on ‘Traddies’ and came with an example of the kind of beer Paul has in mind: Brass Castle’s Loco Stock.

We’ve been repeating a standard line for a few years now: one possible very broad indicator of a brewery’s ‘craft’ status (def. 2) is that its best-known or flagship beer will be an American-style pale ale or IPA rather than, as with Fuller’s or Wadworth, one of its brown bitters. What this acknowledges is that many post-2005 new wave British breweries do still brew a bitter, even if it’s an also-ran in their line-up.

For example Thornbridge (disclosure: various) still make a version of Lord Marples (PDF), the cask bitter they brewed before Jaipur was invented, which was designed to appeal to traditional Sheffield drinkers. We’ve not tasted it for a while but we recall it being notably deep brown and distinctly bitter. It uses only English and/or European hops and contains crystal malt — indicators of its old-school identity.

But Paul’s question is quite specific: which of these new wave brewery bitters are as good as the best examples from the trad-regional-family brewers? Lord Marples is one of the best of the new breed but, being totally honest, faced with choosing between it and Sussex Best for one pint, all else being equal, we’d choose the latter every time. (As, we suspect, would most so-called ‘crafties’ these days.)

Marble Manchester Bitter, on the other hand, we might choose over Sussex Best. (This is quite a good test.) That’s partly because it’s an homage to the Manchester pale ale sub-style and pre-1980 Boddington’s in particular, a beer that we’re a bit obsessed with, but mostly just because it’s different: not flowery and perfumed, and really bitter. But… It’s not brown. Is that a deal-breaker? It’s called Bitter, though, rather than golden ale or pale or summer or sunshine or whatever so, yes, we reckon it’s a brown bitter whose twist is that it’s not brown.

Weird Beard Boring Brown Beer is described as an Imperial Best Bitter and has an ABV of 6.5% (as per their website). It also uses American hops and Belgian-style malt, which makes it sound not much like Bitter, capital B, at all. We’ve had it a couple of times — on draught, we think, and also from bottles — but didn’t take notes. We have a vague memory of thinking it was ‘nice’. That leads us to conclude that, if push came to shove, we would choose Fuller’s ESB, which at it’s best can be absolutely extraordinary, over BBB.

We mentioned in our last post Siren Craft Brewery’s take on best bitter brewed with Brettanomyces for an Orval-like funk. That’s a twist that doesn’t fundamentally compromise the essential Englishness of the style — it enhances it, arguably, Brettanomyces meaning ‘British fungus’ — while still adding complexity and interest. And, as we keep banging on, Sussex Best is itself prone to funkiness, only at less extreme levels.

So, twists we like in a bitter: challenging bitterness, regional specificity, history and Brett. Twists we don’t particularly go for in this particular style: flowery New World hops, flavourings, high ABV, irony.

Overall we stand by our feeling that, generally, trad-regional-family brewers have this covered and when we and others nag them to up their game, we don’t necessarily mean BREW A SAISON AT ONCE! — just maybe give your core beers a tune up and a buff with the chamois every now and then to make sure they’ve not slipped away from balanced and into being straight-up dull.

As ever, feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments below: Which bitters, best bitters or ESBs brewed by post-2005 breweries would you choose over Harvey’s Sussex Best, Adnams, Fuller’s, Lees, et al?

 

17 replies on “Q&A: Which Are the Best New Wave Takes on Brown Bitter?”

Moor Revival is a great beer, brewed to celebrate the beginning of the breweries new direction. Again it’s pale and very bitter, so potentially another deal breaker. Tiny Rebel Cwtch deserves a mention, it’s billed as a hoppy red but on cask it shines, it’s definitely the natural progression of the bitter genre. If it’s proper trad post 2005 you want you could cite Stroud Brewery (opened 2006) Tom Long Bitter, which is great beer and very much in the traditional brown bitter vein.

(Disclosure: from time to time we sell all of these beers at The Duke’s Head, Highgate, hence why they’re probably the first few that come to mind)

Cheshire Brewhouse – Engine Vein .
A superb best bitter, great malty taste with a long and lingering finish with a tantalising hint of hops makes for a very easy drinking beer. Even better out of the wood.

I had Marble [Manchester] Bitter the other night – it definitely struck me as more brown than yellow.

Ticketybrew Golden Bitter is a fairly deep brown, despite the name; Duncan told me they started brewing it specifically for the punters of Stalybridge who might find their Pale* & Blonde a bit adventurous. It’s terrific, too, at least when fresh. (Pale and Blonde both ‘stale’ interestingly on cask; I wasn’t so convinced by the GB a few days old.)

*Which is also a fairly deep brown. Crazy name, crazy guys.

Agreed Marble Bittter is definitely brown (I live around the corner from the Marble beer house). I don’t know whether there’s some confusion going on with Marble Pint which is also a bitter but a very pale yellow in the Boddingtons mould.

Well, there’s brown, and there’s brown. We haven’t got a reference pint to hand but all our notes suggest it’s gold, just not that really pilsnery kind of white-green you get in a lot of full-on pale and hoppy beers. But then the Marble Arch is a bit gloomy so maybe we judged the colour wrong.

Googling turns up this handy visual record of all their beers lined up but it’s from 2010 and maybe Bitter has got darker since then. It, and their other beers, have been all over the shop in recent years.

Mark Dredge says gold; Ratebeer’s most recent reviews say ‘brownish’, ‘golden’, ‘orange-copper’, ‘clear yellow’… So who knows.

I’ll Tweet at the brewery and ask for an official verdict. Probably easiest.

Fyne Ales Maverick, Holly Daze and Highlander would be great examples of this, although they predate your 2005 stipulation by three years or so (Still would regard them as a new wave/craft/non traditional brewery ) . Clear roots in british “traditional” beers but distinctively modern.

Good posting. FWIW, I definitely would include the Boddington tribute because Boddington itself is a throwback to the great era of bitter beer, the 1800s. Then, crystal malt didn’t exist, or for most of the 1800s. So an emulation of Boddington philosophically is brown bitter especially as some think crystal was added in a modern process to emulate 1800s pale ale.

Net net, there doesn’t seem much the new school offers here. Which shows that brewing is an art and you can’t just make any old style any time you want. It takes skill, study, knowhow and more. The old breweries have had time to gather all that, and it’s not something anyone can pick up at a whim even if so minded that is.

Gary

Acorn Barnsley Bitter: as brown as an old sideboard, virtually no aroma (apart perhaps from a hint of toffee), but packed with properly bittering hops that reveal their presence only after you’ve swallowed the first mouthful. It tastes of BEER.

I would nominate my brother’s (Out There Brew Co) 3.6% “Space is the Place”. Although we are not Ratebeerians, it is flattering to see it beats 95% of beers in the same category on that contentious website.

Cloudwater do a nice one. The snappily named “Bitter (Spring / Summer 2016)”, IIRC.

I do agree with your penultimate paragraph, though. Which ties in to the ongoing idea that we – as traddies even more than as crafties – should probably get more excited by the family / regional brewers who are still producing great traditional beers.

RedWillow feckless is a fairly trad bitter, based on challenger hops I think, very much in line with what you are looking for. The new cloudwater bitter was excellent on cask recently, definitely brown but also very hoppy, all uk experimental hops I think.

White Horse Brewery – “Weyland Smithy”
Vale Brewery – “Gravitas”
Both are fine ales.

Should the gold standard not be Joseph Holt’s Best Bitter ?

My vote would be for a local Suffolk brewery near where we live, Barrell & Sellers Best Bitter, often on draught at the Rumburgh Buck and available online in bottle-conditioned format and at London’s Fortnum & Masons! http://www.barrellandsellers.co.uk/ they do mail order so treat yourself to a tasting case!

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