The Humble English Bitter

Hops. High ABV. Hurricanes of Wild Yeast. All twisting your tongue, assaulting your palate; wish I had more rhythm as I'd make this a ballad.

It's 2015 and the world of beer is moving fast. We're hopping the fuck out of beers, we're making them strong as fuck, we're making them so sour that they suck your face in and we're adding ingredients that 10 years ago we wouldn't have dreamed of putting in beer.

As a beer geek, I love how experimental and crazy the craft beer scene is, but I'm as guilty as most of you. I've forgotten about where my love of beer first started - the humble English bitter.

I walk into a pub with a bank of 8 hand pumps, I scan the bar, there are English bitters but almost every time I will pick something that sounds like it might be the most hoppy; or I'll pick a keg beer, obviously.

I see an English Bitter on that bar and I ignore it, as if it doesn't exist. I almost give it an evil glance as I cast it asunder, as if it has no place on the bar in 2015. The pump clip of the Humble English Bitter weeps and asks why I don't pick it and I respond with "sorry bro, you're just not interesting enough".

Years ago, this wasn't the case. Years ago, friends and I would go to The Fat Cat and pretty much only drink Fat Cat Best; it was sub-4% and only £2.20 a pint. It was a little oaty, sweet from the locally grown barley and leafy from the English hops, with just a tad of fruitiness. It wasn't a challenging beer, it was easy drinking and you could happily sink a fair few and still wander home. It wasn't the greatest beer in the world, in all honesty, but it was a pleasant one.

I'd go to The Gatehouse with my brother, god knows why; it was a weird, dingy pub filled with some extremely odd characters, not to mention the barkeep/owner, a man who seemed to not have many words to say; long grey hair and beard, always wearing a bow tie and a waistcoat. We'd sit and drink pints of Grain Oak, a best bitter, for under £3 a pint. I always remember enjoying it but it's a beer I'd overlooked for years, until last night.

Last night I popped into the Coach and Horses on Bethel Street to see Sammie. I've been in this pub a few times since it's been refurbished (the first was the day of the Bullards launch) but it's never been on the top of my list when out and about. Last night I walked in and scanned the bar and didn't think there was anything I really wanted to drink, until I spotted the Grain Oak pumpclip so I got a pint.

And it was perfect. It was dark golden, verging on amber; it had a sweet crunchy nut cornflake malted base with an abundance of leafy, peppery hops leading to another sweet, refreshing finish. It made me question why I overlook the Humble English Bitter.

It made me question my status of being a beer geek and a beer writer. What authority can I really have if I can't regularly appreciate such an important style of beer? A style that doesn't challenge you and is sessionable?

As beer geeks, we all do the same. We all forget about the Humble English Bitter and it's not great. It leaves me wondering, with so many beer geeks at IndyManBeerCon this weekend, how many English Bitters are on the bar? And as far as I can tell from the current beer list on their website, the answer is none. Is that really the case or have they just been rebranded as pale ales to seem cool?

Fellow beer geeks, step away from the Brettanomyces; sweep your high IBU beers under the carpet; ignore the Imperial and wake up. It's not all about the funk, the bitterness and the strength.

Sit down and have a pint of the Humble English Bitter. Sit and appreciate a low ABV beer that isn't jacked up with hops or sourness or whatever the fuck else.

You'll thank me.



  1. Grain Oak. What a superb beer. Must get one in when I'm around for Beer Fest.

    I think you're right on the button wondering what's happening to bitter. Perhaps it's just because there are so many also-rans in that field - practically every real ale brewer makes one, but am I the only person to think some of them do so rather grudgingly, the way a schoolchild turns in homework?

    1. The thing is, bitters are still around but they're ignored by people like me because none of the "cool" breweries are calling them a bitter. Magic Rock Ringmaster I'd call a bitter, albeit a hoppy one, but they don't call it that as they don't want it to seem like an old man's drink.

    2. Magic Rock also relatively recently made "Retrospect" which they did refer toas a bitter, so I am not sure that's 100% the case. Perhaps they didn't feel they could do the style justice?

    3. Amusingly to back up your point though, it doesn't mention Bitter on the pump clip, Yorkshire Common lol!

    4. Reminds me of when a lot of brewers were re-naming milds or outright dropping them a fair few years back when hoppy golden beer were starting to see seriously popularity and mild seemed to be intrinsically linked with the old man drinking pub. I too have been guilty of overlooking a well done bitter and was only reminded how good they can be a few months ago when I had a pint of Stancill Bitter at my local annual beer fest!

    5. Your comment about none of the 'cool' breweries calling them bitter but still making them reminds of me when golden ales were on the rise and lots of brewers stopped calling mild's mild! Completely agree with the post, I too have been guilty of ignoring a classic bitter because of the alluring stare of an imperial mint stout or other.

  2. Word. Two of the best beers I have had in the past month have been Adnams Broadside and Harveys Sussex Best.

  3. Brewerys labeling some thing as pale and drinkers ordering it as bitter has a long long history. I wouldn't worry about that. I don't think English bitter is even close to endangered yet.

  4. One of the most satisfying beers I've had recently is actually a take on a traditional British Bitter - Anspach & Hobday's 'The Best Bitter', which was simple, elegant and highly flavoursome. Would work with a lot of different types of food for a great pairing.

    I think there is a bit more interest lately in some styles which have been somewhat forgotten lately making a come back with some craft brewers - milds have had a minor resurgence too with the likes of Kees and Buxton have a crack at the unfashionable style.

    I'd like to see a few more breweries have a play with the best bitter style, even kegged efforts providing some 'play' with the flavour and aroma base.

    I think this style will be pretty safe for generations to come.

  5. "It leaves me wondering, with so many beer geeks at IndyManBeerCon this weekend, how many English Bitters are on the bar? And as far as I can tell from the current beer list on their website, the answer is none. Is that really the case or have they just been rebranded as pale ales to seem cool?"

    I think you're missing the point. Drinking is situational. I don't want to go to a festival like IMBC and drink pint after pint of one beer style. Likewise, I don't want to go to the pub for a catch up with somone I haven't seen for 6 months and drink 3rd pint measures of 10% imperial stout. There's no right and wrong. It's all beer and it all works in its own way.

    I just posted this on another one of your blogs, but I think you're in a bit of a beer bubble. I've no doubt that an increasing number of people drink beer with the behavior you describe. But they pale into insignificance when compared to the broader range of drinkers in this country. In your (our?) world, the Gose is a common beer style and the English bitter is in decline. Ask the bloke you sit next to at work what Real Ale is and what Gose is ...


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