Beer styles

Bitter on Twitter: which is the quintessential example?

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:

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:

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.

Brewery Beer Votes
Harvey’s Sussex Best 31
Timothy Taylor Landlord 17
Batham’s Bitter 15
n/a Bass 4
St Austell Tribute 3
Fullers London Pride 3
Adnams Bitter 3
Marble Manchester Bitter 2
Timothy Taylor Boltmaker 2
Woodforde’s Wherry 2

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?

15 replies on “Bitter on Twitter: which is the quintessential example?”

In what sense is Harvey’s weird? Sorry, that sounds a bit confrontational. I’ll put it another way – I can understand people thinking of Batham’s as unusual, in that it’s a style of bitter that doesn’t have many representatives, but Harvey’s Sussex Best strikes me as typical of a whole range of bitters (only better than most). I’m curious (again, genuinely – no snark intended!) what the people who think it’s weird would consider a more ‘normal’ bitter.

because it tastes like it’s been fermented with baker’s yeast rather than brewers yeast!

It’s got that wild yeast thing going on – debaryomyces, is it? It is funky. We were responding to a couple of things people said on Twitter there.

interesting, thanks Ray… I’ve never liked it (though I love other Harvey’s beers) and it’s that character that I thought was some kind of brett that puts me off. There’s a clash going on in the bitter, which (for me) the dark beers get away with and actually benefit from. Interesting to know what it is and keen to read a little more about it.

I cannot see Tribute as a clone of Landlord: do you really think the latter has any citrus notes?

Yes, when it’s at its best. Orange and peach. They’re not identical but definitely cousins. But it’s also about the story: Roger Ryman was a Yorkshireman and we think that informed his brewing quite a bit.

Yes, I would say that’s much closer. I really can’t see Tribute as, well, a tribute beer to Landlord, it’s got a very different character IMHO.

Disappointed nobody mentioned Sam Smith’s OBB ( My 1 St choice )
Though I’d have deffo gone for Unicorn as a back up !
Gorgeous beer ?
Cheers Guys

Interesting that there’s such a runaway top three; all of them great beers, of course, but for some reason I think of bitter as a style where local availablity and habituation play a big role in taste forming (tying in with the local distribution areas of the trad family brewers we associate with the style?). For me, the beer that I imprinted on as a youthful drinker was Pride, but now I’m a Londoner in exile my local doesn’t stock it. When I was last visiting the Smoke I stopped off at the Star on my way to the station and ordered a pint with some trepidation – would it be as good as I remembered? – but it tasted like coming home.

I definitely agree that regional availability is a big influence on the results. Although I agree now that Harvey’s is a worthy contender, I never saw it when I lived anywhere north of the Thames, and I can’t say I’ve ever tried Bathams which is presumably because I don’t often drink in the West Mids!

For what it’s worth, my definitive “Bitter” would have been York Brewery Yorkshire Terrier, but I’ve never seen it outside the city walls…

Harvey’s still re-pitch with yeast from the previous brew, a practice long since abandoned by most brewers. They’ve been doing this since with the same yeast since 1957 so plenty of time for unique flavours to develop. I suppose this makes it taste ‘wierd’ to some people but unique and interesting to others.

The late lamented Higsons bitter. I have just finished my memoir of life in Liverpool 1977 – 80, in which beer and pubs featured strongly!

Much though I loved Higsons, I wouldn’t have said it was quintessential bitter – it was far too bitter a bitter for that.

Would probably do exceptionally well these days, sold as a session West Coast IPA.

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