Young’s London Original. Fuller’s London Pride – an outstanding amber ale. And, of course, Boddington’s Pub Ale. All these are ways of talking about bitter without saying bitter.
‘Pub ale’ is a new one to us and cropped up in a recent conversation on Twitter, with reference to the US market:
At least we thought it was new until we remembered that Boddington’s had been using that tag in the American market for decades.
This struck us as especially interesting, though – evidence of why marketing people come up with these tortured and/or twee alternatives:
Some people aren’t happy about all this, though.
Partly resistance to change, of course, especially when it is driven by, as we suppose they see it, pandering.
But that resistance is also partly down to nostalgia: the word ‘bitter’ speaks of pubs and dads and granddads – of the receding 20th century to which so many of us are clinging with whitened fingertips. Bittersweet memory, as it were.
The funny thing is, it’s not as if ‘bitter’ is exactly an age-old traditional term. In a piece we wrote for Beer Advocate years ago we said:
A widely reprinted 1855 parody of aristocratic politician Charles Greville’s controversial memoirs has Queen Victoria serving the Duke of Wellington “a foaming jug of bitter” and this form, without modifiers, became common in the 20th century. By the 1930s, advertisements for Yorkshire brewery Tetley headlined two types of beer, Mild and Bitter.
So, it’s about as old as ‘wireless’ or ‘cinema’.
If you really want to keep it trad, Dad, then ‘pale ale’ is the phrase you’re after.
In itself, though, the word ‘bitter’ does have a certain appeal.
It is plain and unpretentious to the point of self-deprecation. Two simple syllables you can mutter with only a slight, discreet movement of the mouth. No need to show off or make a fuss.
And, thinking about it, isn’t ‘pub ale’ (still US only, everyone – relax!) close to ‘real ale’, another relatively new term that speaks of good, honest beer?
The good news is, whatever labels breweries apply, there’s nothing to stop us talking about bitter, or writing about it, in as much detail as we like.
And, for that matter, there’s nothing to stop you ordering it in the pub. It’s going to be a long time yet before someone working behind a bar is going to pretend they don’t know what you mean when you ask for a pint of bitter.