An Ordinary Bitter Brew

Something you immediately find out when you have your first good ordinary bitter is that it is neither ordinary nor particularly bitter. In a world with double imperial IPAs, it doesn’t take somebody baptized in the Church of Hopheadism to drink this beer. It might be one of the best examples of traditional English beer styles and the American styles based on them.  American beers are more brash, are more extreme, and maybe even more exciting. On the other hand, British beers are about balance, they are more comforting, but they are still complex.

I decided a few months ago that I should switch between a bigger beer and more of a session beer each time I brew. My last beer was my robust porter, clocking in at over 6% alcohol, so this time I figured I should go in the complete opposite direction. A beer that is under 4% alcohol and one balanced towards bitter. This is what the word bitter in the style really means, balanced towards bitter.

A lot of help this brew dog is going to be.

We sit in a wonderful world where you can get almost any beer you have ever wanted. Last weekend I had a Finnish style Sahti made by one of the Goose Island Brewpubs (very good). It is a style of beer traditionally flavored and filtered through juniper berries and twigs. This beer styles essentially died out decades ago, yet I just had it at a local brewpub in a location thousands of miles from its origin. The world that original bitter came out of was very different. In the early 19th century, the beer world was very different. Pale malt had just come on the scene, and England basically had 3 types of beer. A brown Mild, a darker Porter, and then a new pale ale generally hopped at a higher level than the mild or Porter. Later on brewers who bottled tended to call their beers pale ales, while brewers called beers in casks bitters.  Strangely, any of the beers, either cask or bottle, from Burton-on-Trent where still called pale ales. I can’t figure out the reasoning, but it’s strange how names appear.

The word ordinary comes from the amount of alcohol. The lower alcohol beer would be the everyday ordinary beer you drank all night at the pub. The Special Bitter used better ingredients and more of them. They saved the Extra Special Bitter for celebrations and extra special occasions.

Once again I took this recipe from the Jamils Show’s Ordinary Bitter Episode.

Grain Bill (Calculated OG is 1039)
4.35lbs Munton’s Extra Light Pale DME
0.5 lb 120L Crystal
0.25lb Special Roast

Measured OG was 1036

Hops (Estimated IBUs using the Regar formula is 31.4) 
0.65 oz East Kent Goldings (at 7.20% AA) at 60 minutes
0.40 oz East Kent Goldings (at 7.20% AA) at 40 minutes
0.25 oz East Kent Goldings (at 7.20% AA) at 1 minutes
0.20 oz East Kent Goldings (at 5.60% AA) at 1 minute

1 Smack Pack of Wyeast 1968 London ESB (no starter)

The other day I measured the gravity at about 1014. That’s probably as low as this yeast is going to get. I just need to find a few hours to remove labels and then bottle. I did use whirflock, which should clear the beer, but it looks very cloudy. Maybe it needs some time to settle, it has only been a week.

Look at who decided to show up right at the end.

Fullers ESB

Now that I have my laptop back from the shop its time to get back to this blogging business. I’ll start with a classic. Fullers ESB, or Extra Special Bitter. Throughout the years you will find that breweries tended to differentiate their brews by alcohol with the general flavor profile the same. This happened for two reasons. Usually the beer style depended on ingredients available and the mineral content in the water. You couldn’t brew a Burton-On-Trent style pale ale in a place like Pilsen with the decided lack of minerals in water. Another reason was that governments always wanted their cut, and with generally one style of beer in the area, one of the best ways to figure out a good tax system was to tax by the amount of alcohol in the beer. The extra special bitter is at one end of the alcohol (and original gravity) spectrum with ordinary bitter on the other end and special bitter in the middle.


Big malt up front with no appreciable hop aroma. Real sweet, almost citric.


Golden color, slightly darker than straw. Clear white head with good lacing.


Surprisingly bitter. Would not have thought this with the lack of hop aroma. There is a big wallop of malt flavor. It makes me want some Whoppers.


Light to medium mouthfeel with light carbonation. Nice and smooth. A warming alcohol feel follows each sip.

Overall Impression

It is a great beer that would go perfectly with some good vanilla ice cream, maybe topped with some homemade caramel sauce.

Fullers London Pride

Bitter. Why would anybody want to drink something called a Bitter? Bitter is the flavor of poison in the wild.

Fullers London Pride

It’s the reason kids don’t eat their vegetables. It’s generally seen to our American palate as unpleasant, but this isn’t always the case. What would marmalade be without the use of bitter oranges? What about Tea? What about Coffee? Oh wait, coffee without the bitterness would be something like the Starbucks Peppermint Mocha with whipped cream. So many foods have so much artificial sweetener that most people don’t even know what sweet is.

I'll get off my soapbox now.

Why bitter? It’s the balance. Balance is important in everything in life, and this is especially true for your gastronomic experiences.

Without bitterness, beer would taste like malt syrup, and though you might drink a spoonful of this, you certainly wouldn’t be drinking it by the pint. Since about the 15th century, bitterness in beer has come mainly from hops. In darker beers, you also get some bitterness from the highly roasted malt (just like how the darker roasts of coffee are bitterer than lighter roasts). Before this, at least in Europe, you generally had a mixture of spices called gruit. Gruit is usually made up of herbs like sweet gale, mugwort, yarrow, wild rosemary, cloves etc. It varied from region to region and the recipe was usually kept secret. Gruit usually came only from the church or nobility, and acted as a tax on the beer since you had the get your Gruit from them. If you do want to make your own Gruit beer, you may want to omit the yarrow and wild rosemary, as these are questionable at best for human consumption.

Hops eventually came along, and over the period of several centuries and almost completely overtook other spices. This is probably due to its better antibiotic properties that favor beer yeast, and the reason that regions that resisted hops the longest and still to this day prefer other spices, still will include a small amount of hops in their beers.

Fuller’s London Pride is an English Style Bitter. It has a lot of overlap with a pale ale, and some would claim that the only difference is a bitter comes from a barrel and a pale ale comes from a bottle. Others like Garret Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery would claim that Pale Ales are drier and have a very clean sharp hope flavor. This generally is a result of using water with a high level of gypsum in it (very hard water), most famously from Burton-upon-Trent, and adding gypsum to your brew water to make it harder is generally called “Burtonizing,” but that’s another post.

This beer is not exactly the same London Pride that you would get if you went to a Fuller’s pub in England and ordered a Bitter. The we get comes in a bottle and theoretically in England the bitter would come from a “real ale” system. Which means that it is naturally carbonated in the cask, and uses gravity or a hand pump to pour from a cask instead of compressed C02.This method almost died out in England until the Campaign for Real Ale came along and basically saved beer in England. I say you would theoretically get it from a “real ale” system because although these systems are on the rise, using a real ale system is kind of a pain, and since there is no C02, the beers need to be consumed within a few days. It also requires a skilled cellarman. When the cask is ready to be used, the cask is breached and carbonation is let out of the cask until the preferred level of carbonation is reached. This varies depending on the region of the country. Less carbonation in the south and more carbonation in the north.

Now to the beer of the moment.

Fuller’s London Pride

Fuller’s along with Youngs are probably the most famous of the London Breweries and what you think of when you think of beer in London. You could even divide London into the Fullers side and the Young’s side. just like you divide Chicago into the Cubs side and the Sox side. Beer has been brewed on the site of the Chiswick Brewery for the last 350 years, although the current company Fuller, Smith, and Turner only dates to 1845.

The aroma is very fruity with some hints of breadiness. The most prominent fruit is orange. This actually confused me a little because you generally expect citrus flavors from an American Pale Ale due to the variety of hops used. I went to the BJCP style guides, and low and behold, there was no mention of orange in the British Bitter/Pale Ale aroma or taste. I didn’t think it was a bad batch because I smelled and tasted orange in more than one bottle. I went to the site and a few people mentioned orange in the aroma and taste. Now in looking at my copy of “The Brewmaster’s Table” by Garret Oliver and he does claim the nose contains notes of homemade orange marmalade, so I guess I’m not too far off.

Golden brown and very clear. A short white head that laces nicely as you drink it.

I still taste orange first with some caramel tastes in the middle. The bitterness is prominent, but there is no real aroma or taste from the hops.

Low mouthfeel with a relatively light carbonation.

Overall Impression
This is a great crisp bitter beer that will go as easily with Fish and Chips as with some Chinese takeout. It’s a good session beer to drink all night.