English ale is a historical subcategory of beer that frequently evolves. The approachable flavors and mild alcohol content have become standard in the brewing process, keeping consumers coming back for more.
Many beer drinkers are loyal to English bitters for numerous reasons. A glass of English ale can be refreshing yet have a burst of flavor. It can also be a mellow, palatable match to the main course. It all depends on which type you try and the twist its brewing company added to the formula.
What Are English Bitters?
The term “bitters” is another word for an English pale ale or English-style bitter (ESB), a beer style that can vary in shade and flavor intensity.
An authentic English bitter beer is like many other ales, as it offers a balance of hop flavors and bitterness. Bitters are known as a sessional beer style due to their low ABV of around 3-5%. In other words, consumers can drink for ESBs in a single session without feeling overly intoxicated, as opposed to a more intense beer, like a lager or stout.
Beer Across the Pond: History of English Bitters
English brewers slowly reinvented the traditional ale over the course of several decades. Up until the early 1900s, European breweries only made darker ales.
As raw materials became scarce leading up to the second world war, the British were adjusting their recipes to create an ale that was cost-effective and kept a great flavor. Old English beer recipes required work that was no longer sustainable, and the concept for bitters became a work in progress.
Shortly after World War II, English bitters were a staple in British pubs and eateries. Soon after, American breweries adopted the new favorite and began making their adaptations, leading to the American Pale Ale (APA).
Since the inspiration for the APA stems from the creation of bitters, you’ll often find many similarities between the two English beer styles. Though APA and IPA beer history aren’t as complex as the story behind English bitters, it’s undoubtedly the beer style most authentic in its roots.
Flavor Profile of English Bitters
Imagine the happy medium between a traditional English ale and a bitter IPA–that’s what you can expect when ordering an English bitter. Aromatic and crystal malts are used to give the ale a subtle sweetness during the brewing process. The potency of the alcohol content is very mild and nearly undetectable to ale enthusiasts. Biters are a light to medium-bodied ale and typically result in shades of gold and copper.
The flavor profile of any beer style results from the malt to hop ratio. Brewers create an approachable balance of malt character and bitterness to make bitters.
So despite the name, bitters aren’t all that bitter, after all. Bitters will probably be your go-to choice if you enjoy many types of pale ale beer but prefer a mild, hoppy flavor.
Remember, tasting rooms at breweries usually serve each beer style in unique styles of glassware. Though bartenders may not be as specific, it can make a difference depending on the beer itself (see: our complete bartender's guide book).
When you drink any aromatic beverage, the scent is part of the whole experience just as much as the flavors. Have you ever seen somebody swirl their glass? It’s a practice to release the aromas, as they always complement the taste. Though we don’t recommend you swirl a carbonated drink, glassware choices with a wide top serve the same purpose.
If you want to pair an English bitter with a meal, opt for one of the following choices:
- Fish and chips have roots in the same geography and are an excellent match to an English ale.
- Roasted chicken is bland enough to pair with a crisp, flavorful meal without tasting too overwhelming.
- Oatmeal raisin cookies are a fabulous choice if you’re ever looking to pour a beer with something sweet.
Types of English Bitters
As English brewers reinvented bitters over the years, the bar and restaurant industry was introduced to various subcategories of the British favorite. Though microbreweries may create recipes that are unique from your standard list of drink specials, understanding the differences is key to choosing one you’ll enjoy.
From differences in hop flavor intensities to levels of alcohol content, there is an English-style bitter for every meal, setting, and occasion (view: other drinks to know as a bartender).
As an easy-to-drink version of English bitters, many consumers prefer the rich flavor with the low alcohol content. Ordinary bitters have the lowest alcohol content of all the bitter variations, with an ABV of around 3-4%. As a session beer, ordinary bitters are ideal for social drinking and lengthy occasions.
If you’re looking for an English pale ale with various hop characters, a best bitter might be right for you. There is typically a strong aroma with medium strength in taste.
The alcohol content remains pretty low for this bitter type, with ABVs ranging from 3.8-to 4.6%. Moderate malt levels and mild bitterness make best bitters a delicious choice for when you’re in the mood for a beer that packs a little bit of a punch.
Premium or Extra Special Bitter
Despite the balance of malts and hops, this subcategory of English ale leans a little on the bitter side in flavor. The alcohol content is pretty strong and comes in shades of amber. You’ll often find ESBs with a 4.6-6.2% ABV (learn: how to calculate ABV), and you can certainly taste the difference.
Since the aromas of ESBs are intense, too, brewers and many types of chefs are likely to be much more selective when choosing food pairing. If you’re hoping to pour a beer similar to what traditional English ale used to be, an ESB will be your best choice from different menu types.
Best English Beer
Many breweries have made adaptations to the traditional English ale over time. Let’s look at some of the most well-known options on the market and determine which one might be the best English pale ale at your local bar:
Midsummer Fling, Harpoon Brewery
The citrusy and herbal flavors and aromas create a unique spin on English ale. Brewed to a vibrant shade of gold, Midsummer Fling is a refreshing blend of lemongrass, elderflower, and Citra hops. It’s perfect for summer, and its clean flavor notes complement various meals.
Younger’s Special Bitter, Rogue Ales
With a subtle opacity and a hazy amber hue, Younger’s Special Bitter is a hop-forward English ale with earthy notes. A pint glass of this ale is aesthetically pleasing to the eye and crisp on the taste buds. Many customers describe Younger’s Special Bitter as tasting both floral and bitter and isn’t as sweet as the beautiful color may suggest.
London Pride from Fuller’s
As the name suggests, London Pride represents authentic British ale. Crystal malts give this beer a strong flavor with clear notes of dried fruits while providing the consumer with aromatic depth with every sip. You’ll sense a taste of balance of malts and hops, as it’s a proper mix of what typically gets added to an English ale recipe.
Redfeather, Black Raven Brewing Co.
A sweet malt profile and moderate hop character make Redfeather a delicious blend of intense flavor. The ale pours out a rich orange-amber shade and is slightly hazy. Many view it as a session ale that doesn’t interrupt the taste of food items.
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Frequently Asked Questions About English Bitters
Why Is English Beer Called Bitter?
Contrary to the name itself, the term “bitters” was given by English drinkers to differentiate it from the darker, traditional ales. During the early 20th century, English pale ales were the most popular bar option, and the name “bitter” grew with the recipe’s booming popularity.
What Are English Bitters Made From?
English bitters are made with English ingredients, including malts, hops, and yeast. The unique blend creates a flavor different from other ales.
What Is the Most Popular Beer In the UK?
As of September 2020, Carling has been ranked the most popular beer in the UK. According to The Morning Advertiser’s data report from 2020, British citizens consumed approximately 1.7 million hectoliters, which amounts to nearly 45 million gallons. This figure would be a surprise on any annual report, but it’s more shocking when you remember that this was a year when pubs and restaurants were closed for several months.
Though it can be a challenge to track the exact ranking of each brand, here are some of the other best-selling beers in the UK:
- Stella Artois