By Michael Dawson
Citizens, if you’re like me, you enjoy the process and ritual of drinking a good beer. You and I may even have in common that when the opportunity to have subsequent beer or beers arises, schedule and other obligations permitting, you will not shrink away from this serendipity. And if we share the same top-fermented spirit animal, you enjoy a good bitter.
“Session” is an adjective that has been increasingly used to describe various beers. I think most would agree the definition of a “session beer” is loose, not to mention culturally dependent (real talk: session beer in Munich makes it hard to find your hotel). It’s mixture of alcohol content, body, and lack of palate-fatiguing intensity that adds up to multiple-pint drinkability without inducing a stagger. There’s a snob factor, too: some beer nerds won’t cop to an American lite lager as being a session beer.
However you define it personally, English bitter is unquestionably a session beer, and, in my opinion, could well be the apotheosis of a session beer: full of flavor, rich with tradition, and low enough in alcohol to facilitate sentence construction, answers to trivia question, accurate bocce rolls, and things like that.
Going by numbers
Bitter straddles a whole range of color, hop level, and alcohol content. The spectrum is divided (with a certain amount of overlap) according to gravity and alcohol: ordinary (or standard), special (or best), and extra special (or strong), in ascending order. And—just to make sure things aren’t too straightforward—the same beer might be a pale ale if bottled or a bitter if served on draft.
At any rate, our brewing project this month focuses on the low end of the bitter spectrum with an ordinary bitter. An OG range of just 1.032 to 1.040 makes for a very manageable ABV of 3.2–3.8%. Color runs from 4 all the way up to 14 SRM, allowing for bitters that can be pale gold as well as bitters that are deep red-amber. Hop rates go from 25 to 35 IBU—just on the hoppy side of malty to decidedly bitter.
What makes it tick
With a name like bitter, hops are a defining component of these beers, but not to the levels American IPA aficionados might expect. A low starting gravity means less hops are needed to convey a bitter and/or hoppy impression to the palate.
The overall character of the hops used is different from American IPA as well. While American craft hopheads will recognize the citrus/pine/tropical fruit character of some varieties, English hops break earthy (woody, herbal, grassy) perhaps with a more toned-down citrus quality—orange marmalade instead of ruby red grapefruit.
Although there’s wiggle room in terms of IBUs, bitters are essentially a balanced style—it’s a hallmark of their drinkability. With such a small malt bill and low OG, the quality of the malt used is key to achieving that balance: it’s hard to fake the funk with anything other than a good English pale ale malt for a base.
For a brewer, turning out a good iteration of an ordinary bitter is a bit like limbo—how low can you go? The scaled-down structure and ingredient list restrict volume in favor of tone. Let’s go: