Recipe: Traditional British Bitter

Unlike the last recipe we did, this week features a style that, although has certainly evolved over the centuries, is still brewed consistently. It is a style that has been lovingly passed down in England from brewer to brewer, who made occasional adjustments for local and cultural changes but kept the basic idea of the beer alive. It is the British Bitter.

What is a British Bitter?

According to the Beer Judge Certificate Program (BJCP), English Bitters covers a spectrum of pale, bitter beers that range in strength from 3.2% to 6% ABV. They are pale to amber-colored, moderately to highly bitter and easy drinking.

The most important thing that sets this style apart from an American Pale Ale or IPA is that the flavor should feature the malt.  Bready, toasty, biscuity flavors should dominate with maybe some slight caramel or toffee flavors as well. The hops are there for bitterness and balance. That’s it. Okay, maybe they can present some light, herbal, woody aromas but they are not meant to be prevalent.

So What Is An English Pale Ale Then?

Depending your definition, that’s what we’re brewing. The BJCP doesn’t recognize a style called British Pale, rather Pale ales fall under the heading of Bitters or IPAs depending on their relative strength. 

For this brew, we shall be cooking up a Strong Bitter I call Vicious Upon Trent

Ingredients:

Water:

I don’t normally go into water chemistry on this blog because that’s a whole, long, crazy-making discussion.  Plus it varies from water source to water source so anything I write here using Boise City water may not translate. But the water such a well-known and integral part of the story for this style, that I feel remise not mentioning it. 

As I mentioned in our history of IPA, the water in Burton Upon Trent, where the British Bitter gained notoriety, is legendary. Plus, the water content is extremely well documented, so why not use the most famous water profile in the history of brewing?

The best and most reliable way to do this is, of course, to start with distilled water and add the minerals until it could have been pulled from the River Trent itself. Of course not everyone has the time or inclination to build their water. So for the brewer that would like to get sorta close, two or three teaspoons of Burton Water Salts will help. It won’t be the same, but it’s a start.

The River Trent. Just Add Water.

Malt:

Just like our last recipe, I think you have to start with a base of Maris Otter. I mean, yes, you could go with American Two Row but it lacks some malty fullness. The rich bread flavors fall short and you’ll actually be able to feel your beer silently judging you from your glass. So start with Marris Otter. Like ten pounds. or be prepared for a life of shame.

Next, some caramel malt. Not a lot, we’re not going for a lot of sweet toffee flavors. In fact, we want this to finish rather dry. So just a hint. Like under 10% of the total grist. So let’s say 12 ounces of crystal 40.

I also like to add a little something for a little malty complexity. Something that gives it an unidentifiable… well… something.  Unidentifiable… shut up.

Anyway, I’m a fan of Victory malt for it’s toasty, nutty flavor so let’s toss a handful of that it. Like 8 ounces.

Hops:

Well, last week I had a bit of a love affair with Golding Hops, so why not keep it going? Let’s throw in some Goldings!

In this case, theres no reason to get fancy with the hop additions. No first wort, whirlpool, mash or any kinky stuff here. This is the hop equivalent of the missionary position. A bittering addition at 60 minutes, a flavor addition at 30 and an aroma addition at 15. It’s tradition, Damn it!

Yeast:


Pretty much any English strain will do. Safale 04 or Nottingham if you’re into dry yeast. Or the multitudes of options in liquid varieties. If you’re asking me, and why not, we’ve gotten this far together, I like WLP005 as it tends to accentuate the nice, toasty malt quality of Marris Otter. Failing that, WYeast’s 1968 for the same reason. 

But again, just about any British strain will do. If it sounds vaguely british-esque, it’s probably okay. 

Procedure:

This is pretty much as standard brew as one can get. Add your minerals to your water, mash at 152 degrees, sparge, add hops at 60, 30 and 15 minutes, pitch yeast and wait a couple weeks.

Easy-peasy, lemon squeezy.

Wait, don’t actually put any lemon in. Wierdo.

Keg or bottle after fermentation, sit back and enjoy this highly drinkable, classic.

And while your English Bitter brews we will move on with the evolution of the India Pale Ale next week.

Vicious Upon Trent

Strong Bitter: BJCP 11C

  • 10lb Marris Otter Pale Malt
  • .75lb (12oz) Caramel/ Crystal 40L
  • .5lb (8ox) Victory Malt
  • 1oz Goldings, East Kent 60 min
  • 1oz Goldings, East Kent 30 min
  • 1oz Goldings, East Kent 15 min
  • London Ale Yeast (WLP013)
  • Estimated Original Gravity: 1.055
  • Estimated Final Gravity: 1.015
  • ABV 5.3%
  • IBUs: 35.9
  • Color: 8.8 SRM

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