Note: in the current (2015) BJCP Style Guidelines, Best Bitter is Style 11B in Category 11 British Bitter From the BJCP Guidelines: “The family of British bitters grew out of English pale ales as a draught product in the late 1800s. The use of crystal malts in bitters became more widespread after WWI. Traditionally served very fresh under no pressure (gravity or hand pump only) at cellar temperatures (i.e., “real ale”). Most bottled or kegged versions of UK-produced bitters are often higher-alcohol and more highly carbonated versions of cask products produced for export, and have a different character and balance than their draught counterparts in Britain (often being sweeter and less hoppy than the cask versions). These guidelines reflect the “real ale” version of the style, not the export formulations of commercial products.
Several regional variations of bitter exist, ranging from darker, sweeter versions served with nearly no head to brighter, hoppier, paler versions with large foam stands, and everything in between.
Judges should not over-emphasize the caramel component of these styles. Exported bitters can be oxidized, which increases caramel-like flavors (as well as more negative flavors). Do not assume that oxidation-derived flavors are traditional or required for the style.”
The information below is still valid, but for those studying for the new BJCP exam, it may be incomplete. Use it as supplemental reading for the style and I will endeavor to update the styles as fast as I can.
Best Bitter (other names include Special Bitter and Premium Bitter) is a name given to pale ales in England which are one step up on the scale of flavor (including bitterness) and alcohol from the session beers called Ordinary Bitters. The terms are sometimes ambiguous, and the names often get used in the wrong (according to the BJCP) category. For instance, in the Wikipedia article entitled “Bitter (beer)”, the term “Premium” is applied to the Extra Special or Strong Bitter category. If things weren’t confusing enough with two or three terms for each category. Since we are homebrewers and not ordering a beer in an English pub, we will concentrate on the BJCP style guidelines and their break-downs of the different styles into categories and sub-categories. Thus we come to the Special, Best, or Premium Bitter style category of the English Pale Ale style.
Pale ale was originally a term coined for beers made from the lighter colored malt which was dried with coke, rather than wood coals. This made it possible for malts of a much lighter color and without the tell-tale smoked flavor than was previously possible. Coke was first used to roast malt as early as 1642, but not until 1703 was the term pale ale used to describe this malt. Around the year 1830, the expression bitter and pale ale were more or less synonymous in England. Brewers tended to call their beers pale ale even though the customers in the pubs would ask for a bitter, referring to the same beer. It is believed that the term bitter was used to contrast the pale ales, which were well hopped, from the other popular beers of the times, porter and mild. Bottled beer in England was still labeled as pale ale but brewers began identifying their beers which were cask conditioned as bitter. One exception were the beers from Burton on Trent, which customers referred to to as pale ale, no matter how it was dispensed.
According to Michael Jackson’s Beerhunter site, a Best Bitter (or Special Bitter) is a pale ale with an alcohol content of between 4.4 – 4.5% ABV. In the BJCP guidelines, the characteristics of the Ordinary Bitter and the Best or Special Bitter are almost exactly the same. I’ll re-post those from the Ordinary Bitter page here, but will make the changes in Bold Type.
Several factors are important when brewing this beer and it holds true for all the English pale ales. Number one is to use a yeast that does not attenuate completely and that will produce the fruity esters typical in this style of beer. About 70% is a good target attenuation to shoot for when looking for your yeast. Another important factor is the hopping. Although these beers can be somewhat bitter, they should not be as hoppy as American versions. The hops used should be of the English variety such as Fuggles or East Kent Goldings. These hops will provide the necessary bitterness and flavor while still maintaining the expected English characteristics.
Best Bitter Description
- Aroma: Many best bitters have some malt aroma, often (but not always) with a caramel note as well. There may be some mild to moderate fruitiness from the yeast evident. Hop aroma can range from moderate to none (UK varieties typically, although US varieties may be used). There is generally no diacetyl, although very low levels are acceptable.
- Appearance: Best Bitters will be medium gold to medium copper with good to brilliant clarity. You will normally notice a low to moderate white to off-white head, but there may be very little head due to low carbonation which is typical in these beers.
- Flavor: Bitterness levels can be medium to high with moderate to low hop flavor in Best Bitters. When present, hop flavor tends to be of the earthy, resiny, and/or floral UK varieties (although these days, some US varieties are used as well). Most have moderately low to moderately high fruity esters present which are yeast derived. Ordinary bitters exhibit low to medium maltiness with a dry finish. Caramel flavors are common but not required. The balance is often towards the bitter end of the scale, although the bitterness should not completely overpower the malt flavor, esters and hop flavor. Generally you will find no diacetyl, although very low levels are allowed.
- Mouthfeel: These beers will have a medium-light to mediumbody with low carbonation, although bottled and canned examples can have moderate levels.
- Overall Impression: Best or Special Bitters are very quaffable beers. Some examples can be more malt balanced, but this should not override the overall bitter impression. Drinkability is a critical component of the style; emphasis is still on the bittering hop addition as opposed to the aggressive middle and late hopping seen in American ales.
- Comments: These beers have more malt flavor than an ordinary bitter, making it a stronger beer but still a “session strength” ale. Some modern versions are brewed exclusively with pale malt and are known as golden or summer bitters. Most bottled or kegged versions of UK-produced bitters are higher-alcohol versions of their cask (draught) products produced specifically for export. The IBU levels are often not adjusted, so the versions available in the US often do not directly correspond to their style subcategories in Britain. This style guideline reflects the “real ale” version of the style, not the export formulations of commercial products.
- History: According to the BJCP style guidelines, best bitters were “originally a draught ale served very fresh under no pressure (gravity or hand pump only) at cellar temperatures (i.e., “real ale”). Bitter was created as a draught alternative (i.e., running beer) to country-brewed pale ale around the start of the 20th century and became widespread once brewers understood how to “Burtonize” their water to successfully brew pale beers and to use crystal malts to add a fullness and roundness of palate.”
- Vital Statistics: OG: 1.040 – 1.048 FG: 1.008 – 1.012 IBUs: 25 – 40 SRM: 5 – 16 ABV: 3.8 – 4.6%.
- Commercial Examples: Fuller’s London Pride, Coniston Bluebird Bitter, Timothy Taylor Landlord, Adnams SSB, Young’s Special, Shepherd Neame Masterbrew Bitter, Greene King Ruddles County Bitter, RCH Pitchfork Rebellious Bitter, Brains SA, Black Sheep Best Bitter, Goose Island Honkers Ale, Rogue Younger’s Special Bitter