Ordinary bitter is a name which is synonymous with pale ale in Britain. In fact, a Premium or Ordinary Bitter is in the style category called English Pale Ale by the BJCP.
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.
Ordinary bitter can have a large range of strengths, flavor and color. The beers can be anywhere from a light golden to a dark amber with alcohol percentages ranging from 3% to upwards of 7% ABV. If this isn’t confusing enough, there is no standard naming convention for the English pale ales either. They have several diffuse names for the various strengths of pale ale, including best bitter, special bitter, extra special bitter, and premium bitter.
In general, ordinary bitters have strengths up to about 4.1% ABV. This will include most of the English beers that are labeled as IPA. Even though they bear the name IPA, the aren’t close to the level of bitterness as IPAs in America. Lower gravity session IPAs have been brewed in England since the early part of the 20th century and is the most popular strength of bitter sold in pubs.
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.
- Aroma: Some ordinary 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: Standard bitters may be a light yellow to light 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. When present, hop flavor tends to be of the earthy, resiny, and/or florak 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 light to medium-light body with low carbonation, although bottled and canned examples can have moderate levels.
- Overall Impression: Standard or ordinary bitters are low gravity session beers with low carbonation. This makes them 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: The lightest of the bitters, ordinary bitter is also simply called “bitter.” 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, ordinary 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: 1.032 – 1.040 FG: 1.007 – 1.011 IBUs: 25 – 35 SRM: 4 – 14 ABV: 3.2 – 3.8%.
- Commercial Examples: Fuller’s Chiswick Bitter, Adnams Bitter, Young’s Bitter, Greene King IPA, Oakham Jeffrey Hudson Bitter (JHB), Brains Bitter, Tetley’s Original Bitter, Brakspear Bitter, Boddington’s Pub Draught.
References: Information for this article was adapted from the Wikipedia page entitled Bitter (beer), the 2008 BJCP style guidelines, and Brewing Classic Styles, 80 Winning Recipes Anyone Can Brew, by Jamil Zainasheff and John J. Palmer.