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Why It’s Time for English Bitter Ales

With sessionable ABVs and a nuanced balance of hops and malt, English-style bitters ought to be the beer of moment.

english bitters beer

English bitter ales suffer from what we will call The English Art of Linguistic Downplay (EALD). Considering its centuries-old brewing traditions and pub culture, that the country’s calling-card beer would have a name so dull as “bitters” is only more tragic when you consider the categories, which break out by ascending alcohol levels, within the style: ordinary/standard, best/special and extra special or ESB.

British modesty aside, the beers aren’t all that conspicuous either. The ideal bitter is a study in balance, between a typically fruity yeast profile, toasty, sweet malt character and crisp hop flavors. At a maximum of about 6 percent alcohol for ESBs, they are the very definition of session beers, meant to be consumed pint after pint.

“Traditional British drinking culture is like this: You go out for a bunch of pints—you might be a five-pint guy—and all five pints are between 4.2 and 4.7 ABV,” says Paul Jones of Cloudwater Brew Co. in Manchester, England. “There’s the beer you talk about—like all those juicy IPAs—and then there’s the beer that you talk over,” he adds in reference to English bitters. “There’s not much to say about it other than, ‘yeah, it tastes like beer,’ and then you can go back to talking about your mortgage.”

One would think as the pendulum swings toward “session beers” here in the U.S. that English bitters would be poised to join the ranks of lagers, pilsners, goses and session IPAs as a favorite long-game beer of choice. So why haven’t they been embraced here in the States?

Back in the late-1980s, ’90s and early 2000s, there were a number of American brewers who found inspiration in classic English beers, particularly ESBs. Well before hops like Citra and Mosaic were created and Nelson Sauvin and Motueka arrived on these shores, centuries-old British ale hops, like Fuggles and Goldings (yes, more evidence of EALD) were the hops of the moment.

“When our craft movement in the U.S. started in the’70s, we didn’t have a history of craft—but England did,” says Greg Engert, the Beer Director for D.C.’s Neighborhood Restaurant Group, which includes the lauded beer bar, Churchkey. America’s early craft brewers embraced these hops, which are known for giving beers a crisp, dry bitterness and an earthy, subtle aromatic profile. But nearly as soon as the beers were on the scene, the West Coast was about to give rise to its own style of ale, utilizing more exuberant Pacific Northwest hop clones, like Cascade and Centennial. These early America pale ales, from the likes of Sierra Nevada “shared many traits with English bitter or pale ale, including pale or caramel malts, finishing hops and pronounced bitterness,” writes Garrett Oliver in the Oxford Companion to Beer.

“Bitters and pales evolved into American pale ales and IPAs,” says Engert. Malt balance faded, and a more quiet expression of hop profile gave way to a desire to turn up the volume. “Bitter” in the English sense of the word, was hardly bitter at all compared to a new generation of aggressive hop walloping.

“You can’t really shout with classic English [beer] styles, so they are always at a little bit of a disadvantage,” says Dave McLean, founder of San Francisco’s Magnolia Brewing and a longtime champion of English styles. This is precisely why, in this era of increased restraint and light-handedness in brewing, English-style beers may finally find an American audience, however modest.

Beyond just being lower in alcohol, Engert sees a potential synergy with bitter ales and juicy IPAs because they share a similar sweetness on the palate. “In some ways, I think the American palate might be ready for more malt-forward beers,” he says, noting that while both have a hop presence, neither is overwhelmingly aggressive when it comes to hop bitterness.

The key is finding them. A number of British brands, like Fuller’s and Wells Bombardier, are available in the States—in bottle and on tap—and a dedicated few bars around the country are routinely sourcing these styles in cask from the U.K., avowing that they’re only worth a damn when served in this manner. But there’s also a growing number of American brewers who are trying their hand at the style, working with American hops, rather than the British varieties.

For its Best Bitter, Machine House in Seattle employs Nugget, First Gold, Progress and Aurora. “It’s kind of a northwest take on English style beers,” says Machine House’s Alex Brenner. “We have [the] largest hop growing region in the world on our doorstep. To source East Kent Golding from thousands of miles away doesn’t make any sense to us.”

Machine House joins a number of breweries that have popped up in the past four or five years, like Freewheel and MacLeod Ales, as well as older well-regarded breweries, like Redhook, Left Hand and Deschutes, that never gave up on championing the style.

Curious to see how these American versions stood up to their U.K. counterparts, I joined PUNCH’s Editor in Chief, Talia Baiocchi; Managing Editor, Bianca Prum; Senior Editor, Lizzie Munro; Assistant Editor, Chloe Frechette; and Social Media Editor, Allison Hamlin, for a wide-ranging tasting. In general, the American riffs were expectedly bolder than their British muses, but we weren’t opposed to these slightly ramped-up bottlings. That said, the classic, tightly knitted English bitter from Timothy Taylor was what we all returned to as the ultimate expression of the style.

Six English and English-Style Bitters to Try

Timothy Taylor’s Boltmaker

A self-described Yorkshire bitter, this is the best version of a quintessential English pub ale that we tried. The brewery has been around since the late 1800s, which might be why everything about this beer seemed a little more dialed-in. A spiced, roasted malt flavor reminded one taster of gingerbread cookies, while we also found salty, soy-sauce notes and a bitterness that kept the beer from finishing sweet. This beer is a big winner with CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) in England, which left us wishing we could try it on cask.

  • ABV: 4 percent

Fuller’s ESB

With the U.S. as its largest export market, Fuller’s is one of the easier U.K. ESBs to find in bars and shops, along with its flagship London Pride. This bitter has a refreshing frothiness which works with the bittering hops to keep the caramelized, malty sweetness in check. Fuller’s was a little richer on the palate than the others.

  • ABV: 5.9 percent

Iron Maiden Trooper

For the past four years, heavy metal band Iron Maiden has been behind this beer made by Robinsons Brewery in Cheshire. Despite the creepy, union jack-toting, skull-faced guy on the can, the beer is remarkably balanced, with earthy malt notes and nice acidity. Acidity, in general, is more obvious in the U.K. bitters than those from the States.

  • ABV: 4.7 percent

Left Hand Brewing Company Sawtooth Ale

Brewers at Longmont, Colorado’s Left Hand Brewing use a four-pack of hops—Magnum, US Goldings, Willamette and Cascade—in this earthy, slightly vegetal ESB. With notes of dill and other herbs, Sawtooth is way more aromatic than the U.K. versions, but not in an intrusive way. The beer has a soft texture that makes it incredibly sessionable. (Because of American consumers’ apprehension with the word “bitter” Sawtooth is labeled as an “amber ale” as opposed to what it really is, an ESB.)

  • ABV: 5.3 percent

Redhook Brewery ESB

Since 1987, Seattle’s Redhook has been brewing what’s arguably the best ESB made in the States. The malts here have a sweet, toasted coconut quality, with dried fruit aromas and a vibrancy that stands out among the other American versions. Redhook uses Willamette hops in its ESB, which are a more disease-resistant relative of Fuggle, the OG English variety.

  • ABV: 5.8 percent

Short’s Brewing Company Autumn Ale

“This smells like really sweet carrots,” said one taster, a note that paired well with the beer’s dusty, potting soil aromas. Short’s Autumn Ale from Bellaire, Michigan, has been in the brewery’s line up since 2004, though the hop component has changed over time. This release combines Styrian, Celeia and US Goldings, which leave the beer nicely crisp, despite its saccharine undertones.

  • ABV: 5.9 percent

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