Beer styles

Electric Bear’s brand new old school bitter

“You can’t get a pint of normal bitter these days!”

This isn’t a problem we have in Bristol. From The Swan With Two necks to The Sandringham, there’s one available in most pubs we visit.

Bristol Beer Factory Fortitude, for example, or Butcombe, or Bass, or Young’s Ordinary, or… 

Maybe what people mean, though, is that this isn’t where the excitement lies.

Just being able to drink bitter isn’t enough.

One won’t do.

They demand a choice, in even the hippest bars, and expect brewery research and development teams to be pushing the envelope.

But it’s bitter, and that’s not how it works, is it? It’s been perfected. There’s plenty of room for variation, but not for innovation.

When we saw A Bitter This A Bitter That by Electric Bear Brewing on the bar at The Barley Mow near Bristol Temple Meads station we ignored it at first.

There were more exciting and interesting beers on offer, not least a couple of lagers, and we tend to default to lager when we want an uncomplicated beer to drink while we chat, rather than to think about.

But we had been talking about Bath brewery Electric Bear only the weekend before, when a friend told us that it had got new owners in April 2022 – news we missed at the time.

In this incarnation, the branding has become plainer and cleaner. Less circus bus chic, more organised fun.

Wondering if their beer was still decent, in general, we ordered a pint, for curiosity’s sake.

And we’ll be blowed if it’s not an excitingly good, totally trad, brand new best bitter.

Perhaps being served with a sparkler helped. It looked and tasted like something we might have been encountered in a pub in Sheffield or Leeds.

Some craft brewery takes on bitter can be too full of crystal malt, too dark, and too chewy. This was between gold and brown with a pleasing dryness and lightnes – and perfectly clear.

There was some funk there, too. A touch of nail polish. A bite of apple. Just as you might find in beers from, say, Theakston’s. Complex in its own small way.

It was too good to have just one, so we stopped for another.

During the second round, looking at the pumps, it also occurred to us that, based on recent experience, it might well be possible to turn up at The Barley Mow and find on the bar:

  • this straight-up bitter
  • Left Handed Giant’s straight-up dark mild
  • Moor’s straight-up stout

An opportunity to party like it’s 1929, half-and-half and all.

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.


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.

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?
20th Century Pub Beer history pubs

Beers of the 20th Century Pub, Part 1: 1900-1959 — The Rise of Mild

While it has generally been well received one thing a couple of people have told us they’d have liked more of in 20th Century Pub (please buy a copy) is beer.

It’s absence was the result of having only 80,000 words to play with, and having already written an entire book focusing on beer and brewing covering a big chunk of the same period.

Also, we rather defer to Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson in this territory. Why read us on beer before World War II when you can read both or either of them? (We’d be surprised if one or both of them don’t pop up with corrections in the comments below.)

Still, there’s something fun about the idea of mapping one project against the other, especially if it’s an opportunity to try something creative.

At this point we’d like to thank  Patreon supporters like Owain Ainsworth and Jonathan Tucker for giving us the impetus to spend rather more of our spare time than was entirely sensible working on this post and its sequel. Thanks, gang!

This piece generalises by necessity: of course there were regional variations, and individual pubs which didn’t follow the pattern, and breweries that bucked trends. Having said that, by the turn of the century, regional differences were in the process of being smoothed out with the rise of standard-setting national brands such as Bass and Guinness, Terry Gourvish and Richard Wilson have argued, so generalising about this period isn’t entirely inappropriate.

So, here it is: a timeline of beer in English pubs from 1900 to 1959, with lots of quotations, facts and numbers along the way.

Beer history Beer styles

Crunching the Numbers on British Beer Styles

Rather than relying on interpretations of tasting notes and faulty memories, wouldn’t it be good to know for sure if and how British beer has changed in the past 20 years? Well, there is a way.

In the November/December issue of UK brewing industry magazine The Grist Keith Thomas provided a technical breakdown of the typical strength, colour and bitterness of British beer styles. It is full of fascinating jewels of information but the most interesting parts are this graph…

A graph showing beers clustered around the same bitterness and colour.

… and this table which shows the measured colour (EBC) and bitterness (EBU) of a hundred beers with the numbers prescribed by CAMRA’s style guidelines beneath in brackets:

StyleNo. BrandsColourMin-MaxBitternessMin-Max
Light Mild543
Dark Mild12117
Best Bitter1928
Strong Bitter1633
Old Ale464

These offer a fairly precise snapshot of the reality of the situation in 1995-96 and that is somewhat interesting in its own right, but it becomes a lot more so when you discover that Dr Thomas and his colleagues at BrewLab in Sunderland have been checking in on these stats ever since.

They published a detailed report in 2006, sadly locked away behind paywalls (British Food Journal, Vol. 108, in case anyone has access) and have an update in the works. In the meantime, though, they have released a sort of trailer in the form of a press release, which states (our emphasis)…

[The] features of many styles remained similar to the parameters summarized in 2006.  However, when considered overall some differences are evident.  Average alcohol levels are down by 3% on average.  This did vary by style and was mainly due to old ales being weaker.  More extensive differences are evident in beer colour and bitterness.  While bitterness overall has increased by 5% colour has decreased by 18%.  This is particularly evident in the darker beers – milds, porters and stouts.  In general, it appears that beers are becoming lighter but more bitter…. It was particularly interesting to see that standard beers are retaining their character but also that darker beers appear to be evolving.  The introduction of blond and golden beers has had an impact on the market and possibly influenced changes in other styles.

It also comes with a useful infographic (believe it or not such things do exist) from which we’ve snipped these details:

There’s lots of interesting stuff to chew on there:

  • What’s the difference between porter and stout? Nothing, says history. About 15 points in colour and 7 points of bitterness, say these real world observations.
  • Dark mild has got more bitter since 1995-96… or is it just that the more bitter, characterful examples have proven resilient during the ongoing extinction event?
  • What’s the difference between old ale and barley wine? Not much, says history. About 65 points in colour and six or seven points of bitterness, sez this.