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Beer styles

Call it anything but bitter

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.

Why?

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.

8 replies on “Call it anything but bitter”

Speaking as a foreigner, the term “bitter” was always confusing to outsiders. When introducing someone to that style you always had to start by explaining that “bitter” wasn’t bitter at all.

For me the main thing is that it should survive, since it’s often outstandingly good beer. If changing the name helps then I’m all for it. Would be less confusing, too.

Having said that, getting more difficult to order a pint of Ordinary in the pubs that say “Youngs” on them…

I find it amusing that bitter is a “turn off and yet sour is welcomed. You’d think that of the two terms it would be sour that was the most off putting.

“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.” – You’d be surprised. I remember my Uncle Bert in the mid-1990s asking bemused Australian barstaff in pubs in West London if they sold mild, which they had clearly never heard of.

Didn’t bitter as a term derive from ‘bittered ale’ i.e. ale with hops added, thus making it taste bitter? Ale was not originally hopped, and lately I consider the term differentiates bitter from mild, which tends to be lightly hopped, if at all. Also, I would generally consider IPAs/pale ales to be varieties of bitter, but using pale malts.

We had Boddington’s Pub Ale here in Sweden as well in the 90s, in a can with a widget. Apart from John Bull Bitter, that was my first encounter with British ale (or any kind of ale. In Sweden back then we only had a few brands of lager and Carnegie porter). I think it said on the can that the widget would produce the same head and body as an ale served from a hand pull. I always assumed that “Pub Ale” referred to that – it supposedly tasted the same as if it had been served in a pub.

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