Beer styles Generalisations about beer culture opinion

Mostly Imaginary Beer Nemeses #1: The Sneering Bitter Hater

A lion-headed man who hates bitter, for some reason.

There are no doubt beer enthusiasts out there who hate bitter on a point of principle but surely not so many that they’re worth worrying about.

Now, there are lots of people (like us) who like to drink things other than bitter, in between pints of bitter, which they also enjoy very much.

There are also those (again, like us) who think a pub that serves three beers all within a hair’s-breadth of the same technical specifications is missing a trick. But that doesn’t just apply to bitter, and it doesn’t mean they think bitter, in itself, is fundamentally ‘boring’.

There are definitely people who dislike certain specific brands of bitter, having tasted them and made a more or less informed judgement.

Detail from an old beer mat: BITTER!

There are even people who rarely choose to drink bitter if there is something else on offer because they prefer lager (most of the UK population) or, for example, American-style IPAs. But they probably don’t care what you drink; nor do they want bitter to disappear from the face of the earth.

And there are people who’ve just never got the taste for bitter because it’s, er, too bitter. But they’re often also sceptical about beer in general — they’re not snooty hipster beer geeks looking down on this one style in particular.

Perhaps you’ll be able to point to a few tagged specimens in the wild — a blog post here, a Tweet there — but, really, isn’t The Sneering Bitter Hater just a rhetorical device? A comfort blanket for the oddly self-loathing bitter lover?

Next time on Mostly Imaginary Beer Nemeses: People Who Think Only Murky Beer Tastes Good and/or is ‘Craft’.

35 replies on “Mostly Imaginary Beer Nemeses #1: The Sneering Bitter Hater”

For some reason I dislike GK beers (all of them) on cask so much that I have to vocalise my disdain. That’s either a remark to whoever I’m with or an audible groan. I’ve had far worse beer and I’m not suggesting there’s anything amiss with GK but there’s this horrible twang off it that offends me but doesn’t seem to bother my mates. Why can’t I resist the urge to do it? Why just GK?

For better or worse, Greene King’s house yeast gives all their beers its distinctive flavour. In principle, I am very much in favour of breweries having their own distinctive house yeast. In practice, I am not very keen on Greene King’s although they are a fine example of the phenomenon.

If you don’t think that such an animal exists, try the unofficial CAMRA Facebook group – more than a few there who won’t accept the worth of anything but the most crafty of new beers, and decry traditional bitters in very disparaging terms.

Am I an oddly self-loathing bitter lover for thinking that, then? It’s not a category I would recognise for myself, but nor do I really think it’s a fair conclusion to draw.

I wish you wouldn’t do this “aren’t some people funny, the way they make those comments about that sort of thing” routine. I guess you’re going for the Richard Boston/Paul Jennings style of Humorous Vignette, but it just comes across as sneery and passive-aggressive, as if you’re trying to pick a fight with someone but you don’t want to actually call them out. #1 of 1, please.

This seems a weirdly strong reaction to a 300 word blog post which, as you rightly identify, isn’t meant to be 100 per cent serious in tone.

If we were intending to ‘call out’ anyone in particular, we would — we’ve done that in the past and there aren’t many people we engage with who’d take it the wrong way if we did.

It’s just about a thing in the air, that’s been in the air for a few years, that strikes us as odd.

Oh well. Win some, lose some.

I think you must have hit a nerve, which may not have been your intention, but kind of proves your point.

“All keg is shit” CAMRA dinosaurs don’t like it when people point out the composition of their strawmen.

More of this kind of thing please.

Cheers, py, nice to see you here again.

On further reflection (“thanks, Phil, please do reflect on this dashed-off blog post further and at greater length!”) I guess it’s the “oddly self-loathing bitter-lover” that rattled my cage. Some bitter-lovers secretly hate their choice of drink, and themselves for clinging to it, & project their self-hatred onto imaginary sneering crafties as a defence mechanism? (Many bitter-lovers? Most? All?) What’s that about?

I guess that’s about people who like Thing X but can’t relax and enjoy it because they think they’re being judged by people hipper than them. They’re not confident in their own tastes and preferences. Instead of just liking and championing Thing X they tend to do so with compulsive reference to the kind of idiots who are too obsessed with fashion — curse their beautiful faces and stylish clothes! — to appreciate Thing X.

This doesn’t just happen with bitter, obviously, but that’s one area we’ve noticed it.

It’s a reasonable thing to post imho. I’ve got similar rants about a number of daft myths about craft beer (the hushed, reverential sipping, the dislike of traditional pubs, the unavailability of plain malt-and-hops beers due to all the novelty ingredients, the prevalence of cartoon skulls on the cans, the centrality of corporate-bashing) and I often do call people out on them in comments and on Twitter, but that always feels a bit of a footnote and it’s reasonable to want to give it center-stage via a blog post.

That said, I’m not actually convinced that the sneering bitter-hater is that much of a strawman – people who are arrogantly dismissive of trad bitter and the people who drink it certainly exist, although I think that in my frame of reference they’re probably outdone both in numbers and in obnoxiousness by people who are arrogantly dismissive of anything that smacks of “faddy” craftiness.

Do you see the term “Boring Brown Bitter” as referring to specific brands, rather than bitter in general then?

That particular phrase is an interesting one.

If you look search Twitter for that term you’ll see it used by far the most often by people who like bitter either (a) attributing to straw man craft beer wankers; or (b) using it affectionately/ironically.

Brewers seem to use it a lot too, in some variation on ‘Who says brown bitter’s boring!?’ (Hardly anyone — see the post above!)

There is the odd casual use by others but, again, as per the post, it’s not often a calculated cuss against the whole style — it’s a careless shortcut for ‘all the bitters they had were boring’, or ‘it was boring of this pub to have so many bitters’, or ‘I’m a bit bored of bitter’. And those people often end up saying something positive about a particular bitter they do like on another occasion.

We reckon there was a point (maybe up to about about seven or eight years ago?) when ‘boring brown bitter’ was a more frequent lazy diss of the whole style (including maybe by us, but I don’t think so). But when that was rightly challenged, most people stopped doing it and, indeed, these days even the Well Craftest cutting edge bloggers seem to make a point of praising bitter when they get the chance.

But maybe we’re hanging out in the wrong (right) places, as per Nick’s suggestion above.

Being accused of being passive aggressive is a bit of a tricky one. You really can’t win if called such a thing. If it happens to me I instantly feel active aggressive.

As for the substance I think Dave S has the right of it.

I drink bitter almost exclusively. But then I like beer.

But isn’t the Oddly Self-Loathing Bitter Lover just as much of a strawman as any other caricature? 😉

I do know people who say things that might put them in one or other of these mythical caricatures, but the reality is get them down the pub and they will drink whatever there is that suits them best, even if it’s something they might decry publicly. Most drinkers in the end are more fussed about if they enjoy something or not rather than the label. Well, most drinkers I would want to drink with, anyway. I’ve been drinking craft beer – beer labelled as such – since I first came across it in the US 20 years ago next month, and I’ve never been fussed about that particular label either way. I’m much more interested in beer style, but not in the sense that I use it as a restriction on my drinking, purely as another way of investigating beer. And I believe most people will drink whatever they enjoy, whatever the description, whatever they say.

“Passive aggressive” to me means “having a good old go at someone without naming them or using any emotive language, in the hope that that someone will get the message and feel suitably got-at”. I prefer active aggression, even directed at me – at least it means you know what’s going on.

As for this post, I can’t recall hearing anyone slagging off bitter in general, or hearing anyone complaining about people who slag off bitter in general for that matter. So my reaction to the post was that I didn’t know what was going on, but it seemed like somebody was being got at.

As for ‘boring brown bitter’, I tend to use it to refer to bitter that’s both brown and boring (have you tried Spitfire recently?).

(Top Tip: another time, just quote somebody actually saying something…)

I generally agree with you on the passive-aggressive “not naming names” routine. People often seem to use it to give them a get-out for taking shots that they probably wouldn’t risk if they actually had to spell out who or what they were talking about, while at the same time making a spurious claim to the moral high ground by pretending that they’re being “diplomatic”. I think it’s incredibly bad for constructive discussion, and I try to call it out when I see it.

OTOH, sometimes you want to say something that isn’t particularly pointed, and that you’d be happy to say directly to someone, but you just can’t be bothered to sift through old tweets and blog comments to dig out specific examples to respond to. At that point a non-directed comment like this post is fair play, IMO.

I think this stems from the never-ending “craft fanboys vs CAMRA diehards” debate.

The craft advocates think they are arguing for the validity of keg as a means to dispense certain beers in certain circumstances, so to them, the argument is “cask alone is worthy/desirable” vs “a balanced mixture of cask and keg is optimal”, but the discussion is often clumsily reframed or misrepresented by the CAMRA hardcore side as a simplistic “cask vs keg”, despite there being virtually no-one who actively claims that keg is wonderful and that all cask beer is shit. (At least if such people do exist, I’ve never come across them).

It IS boring when a pub offers only three brown bitters, because it effectively removes your choice. It would be equally boring to go to a pub with three near-identical DIPAs or three stouts, but that’s not something you see. Three brown bitters on the bar, on the other hand, is still surprisingly commonplace.

Is it just in the UK? In the USA (where craft originated as a response to lack of choice and blandness ) cask ale is respected as very craft indeed.

It is, but it’s almost venerated as a religious myth rather than produced and admired. We are unique in the UK in having cask as still such a major form of distribution, it having largely survived because of (a) CAMRA and (b) and awful lot of BBBs…

Turning a blind eye to bullies only encourages them to go and bully someone else.

Well, we don’t think Phil’s a bully, or even that he’s said anything inappropriate. All within the bounds of frank debate.

and in the same vein, apparently some women “like” being wolf-whistled.

I must be missing something here. Phil expressed his dislike of the post; we’re basically fine with that; but you think we should be more upset?

And I thought your followup comment – unpacking the ‘self-loathing’ thing – was really interesting; it does sound like a real type. (Not me, though – I’m quite capable of being sure of my own preferences and hating young people.) I actually found py’s initial comment helpful, too, but perhaps I wasn’t meant to. Hey ho.

‘Twiggy’ takes me back to the 70s and early 80s, when the really good stuff was (a) dark (b) strong (c) a bit turbid or ‘soupy’ and (d) mostly mythical, or at least really hard to find – a bit like the reputation ‘scrumpy’ had before people outside cider country started taking notice of it. Maybe I’m thinking of a different sort of twigs.

I think the current on-trend term for dismissing bitters is “twiggy” rather than “boring brown bitter”. You’ll see plenty of that on certain Facebook groups.

I remember a lot of that a few years ago, most notably from Gazza Prescott, and thought it had gone away. Oddly, though, I saw an example on Twitter about an hour ago, so obviously not.

I know it’s *meant* to be pejorative but I actually think twiggy is quite a good tasting note and there are beers we like that you could quite reasonably apply it to, e.g. Butcombe Bitter.

I think Gazza started the trend but it’s certainly still alive and kicking. I get the general impression that it’s often used by some people as a generally dismissive term without thinking what it actually might mean.

Does it not mean that it “tastes of twigs”.

Many poorly-made bitters have the same unpleasant flavour lurking in the background that is hard to describe. Its not like that clean, dry hit of bitterness you get from a hoppy beer, its a lower, muddier, altogether less pleasant note. The best I can think of is like a mouthful of soil – but twiggy is probably quite accurate as well. If you’ve ever chewed on a twig, you would notice the similarity.

Of course, old men who have been drinking bitter for 30+ years have probably got so used to the flavour that they don’t even notice it anymore.

That sounds like overuse of fuggles, they have a distinctly earthy/dirt taste which is unpleasant if a delicate hand is not used. When they are used to dry hop they will leave a resiny/sap flavour if left in too long.

Must say I hadn’t thought of that as “twiggy”, more like stale tobacco crossed with wet dog, but fair enough, if that’s what is intended. And as an “old man” who has been drinking bitter (along with other things!) for more than 30 years, I certainly notice it and dislike it. GK IPA is a standard bearer for this particular taste.

Very interesting, I myself really enjoy all GK beers, I’m finding as I get older my pallet is changing. It’s all a matter of taste, some may find it “boring” but the world would be a “boring” place if we all liked the same, thanks for sharing.

I like bitter. I like most styles of beer too but for everyday drinking it’s cooking bitter for me
My local real ale shrine has 10 beers on hand pump. On occasion there’s no recognisable bitter. Wnen I queried this I was accused of drinking “brown water”.
Mild and bitter are the bedrock of English drinking.

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