The Search for Grown-Up Soft Drinks: Cocktail Bitters

Not being cocktail drinkers, and neither of us having grown up in cocktail drinking households, we had never tasted Angostura bitters until a couple of months ago.

We’d heard the name, and seen the rumpled paper packaging on the back shelf in pubs and bars, but didn’t really understand what bitters are.

Then, as we experimented with ‘mocktails’, we came across a few recipes online that suggested using bitters to add complexity to alcohol-free drinks.

Angostura bitters label.

We were a little sceptical — how much difference can a few drops of this stuff possibly make? — but, no, these cocktail types know what they’re talking about.

Five drops in just a glass of water gives it a mysterious, spicy, medicinal depth, and it magically ‘grownupifies’ any soft drink. They’re sometimes described as the salt and pepper of cocktails which is a good analogy.

Of course that started us thinking…. What if we added bitters to beer?

We’re not the first to have this idea, obviously, and John Verive’s 2016 notes at Paste Magazine are interesting:

I thought the grapefruit bitters-spiked IPA would satisfy a grapefruit IPA drinker dismayed at only having ‘regular’ IPAs to choose from… but it was in the American light lager that the bitters showed true promise… Adding pungent bitters to the fizzy, insipid light lagers completely changes the drinking experience. The scent of citrus oils overpowers the lager’s faint aroma of apple skins, and the additional bitterness balances out the brew’s finish. Subtle botanical flavors add complexity to the one-dimensional beer, and the grapefruit bitters specifically give the impression of classic American hop varieties.

We had a spare can of Camden Hells and so decided to try spiking it with Angostura.

A quick shake — four or five drops — revealed one immediate problem: the bitters sat in the foam, turning it orange-pink, but didn’t make it through to the body of the beer. A quick stir with a spoon (not ideal with beer) solved this problem.

The aroma was intense, more so than in other drinks, adding a fruity, cinnamon note.

It tasted… Weird. Plasticky, fake, chemical. As things went on, though, it became moreish, emphasising the beer’s bitterness and giving it a Christmas character. We reckon it would have worked better with a darker, richer beer rather than standard lager; we’d also rein in it a bit — one or two drops, barely detectable, would probably be about right.

Grapefruit and Hops bitters.

It was certainly interesting enough to make us think that we ought to get some grapefruit and/or hop bitters. We’ll let you know how that goes.

The Cult of Beer

It’s Friday and we’re feeling mischievous, so here’s an entirely (mostly) tongue-in-cheek comparison chart.

People’s Temple CAMRA Brewdog
Problems reduced to one simple explanation, repeatedly emphasised Imminent nuclear holocaust. Real ale. Craft beer.
Gain a new identity based on the group Church member. CAMRA member. ‘Punk’ or ‘scamp’.
Isolated from mainstream culture, mass gatherings, access to information controlled People’s Temple Agrictultural Project. Great British Beer Festival; What’s Brewing?; real ale pubs; Good Beer Guide; AGM. AGM, bars, blog, TV programmes.
Charismatic leaders Jim Jones. Michael Hardman and Christopher Hutt. James Watt and Martin Dickie.
Financial exploitation Religious communalism. CAMRA investments; direct debit membership. Equity for Punks.
Exaggerated membership numbers Claimed 20,000; probably had c.5000. “…journalists… began to over exaggerate… how big we were and that perhaps made the breweries take more notice than we deserved.” Graham Lees, 2011. ?
Persecution complex Believed corporations and government were ‘out to get them’. ‘CAMRA-bashers’, noisome bloggers. Diageo-gate, CAMRA ‘bans’.

If we’re making a point, it’s that no-one should confuse a membership society or a brewery with a Way of Life or Path of Righteousness. If you find yourself preoccupied with or becoming angry about CAMRA or Brewdog, consider deprogramming.