Which are the quintessential cask bitters – those that spring to mind when people think of the style? Our hypothesis: almost always those from established family brewers.
We were promoted to think about this by a question from @casketbeer:
If the world wasn’t shit right now, and I was on my way to England in search of a proper pint of bitter from a newer brewery, it would be what and where?
— Casket Beer (@casketbeer) July 17, 2020
The interesting word there is ‘newer’ and we responded with a lukewarm recommendation for Five Points Best.
To cut a long story short, many Tweets later, we found ourselves suggesting Harvey’s Sussex Best as an example of how older breweries tend to do bitter better.
Are new breweries capable of producing good bitter? Of course they are, especially if you take ‘new’ to mean anything post-CAMRA and the 1970s real ale boom.
But our suspicion is that, if pushed to name one bitter as a perfect example, most people would name a 19th century family brewery beer. So we pushed them:
If someone was in the UK for, say, three hours, and wanted to drink their first and possibly only pint of cask bitter, which one would you tell them to track down?
— Boak and Bailey (@BoakandBailey) July 17, 2020
This question wasn’t worded carelessly.
We specified a three-hour window to avoid people responding with 20-Tweet threads @-ing in every brewery in the UK.
And it being our hypothetical drinker’s one and only pint of bitter would, we hoped, focus minds on suggesting the very best, or at least the very most representative.
We got quite a few responses (if for some reason ‘engagement’ is a key metric for you, try asking people to name a beer they like) and have done our best to tot them up.
There were lots of beers and breweries that got named once. There were quite a few nominations for beers that don’t, in our view, really count as bitter, e.g. St Austell Proper Job.
And even multiple nominations for milds because… look, we’re not sure. Sheer excitement, maybe.
Where people named multiple beers, we took the one they mentioned first as their nomination and ignored the rest.
What we’ve done here is list any beer that got nominated more than once and then rank them by the number of votes.
There’s an obvious holy trinity of beers that are way out in front.
It’s interesting that Fuller’s (Asahi), Adnams and St Austell are lurking so far behind and that nobody mentioned, say, Wadworth, or Robinson’s. And Young’s (ownership confusing) got nominated only once.
The only ‘new’ breweries represented at this top table were founded in 1981 (Woodforde’s) and 1997 (Marble).
If you tot up all the nominations for new breweries and treat them as a category, you get to about 14. (We don’t know all the beers named and some might not meet our definition of bitter.) That’s still not enough to beat Harvey’s, Landlord or Batham’s.
So, in conclusion…
A handful of respected old breweries and brands own the idea of bitter. And if you’re in the UK on the hunt, there’s your shopping list.
- “But Landlord isn’t a bitter, it’s a pale ale!” Historically, there’s no difference between pale ale and bitter. Anyway, Landlord a similar colour to many other bitters, and a similar strength.
- “Tribute isn’t a bitter, it’s…” We reckon it’s a calculated clone of Landlord so, see above.
- “Harvey’s is too weird to be the quintessential bitter.” This is a good point, although we also find Adnams’s pretty strange. And Batham’s too, now you mention it. Maybe being distinctive is part of what makes them great?