English Bitter

English Bitter: A Comprehensive Guide to the Classic Ale Style

English bitter, a distinctive style of pale ale originating in England, has captivated beer enthusiasts for centuries. Characterized by its balance between malt and hops, this approachable and sessionable beer often features an alcohol content below 5%. The bitter style came into being when brewers sought a way to distinguish these ales from milder brews and began incorporating pale malts and more hops into their creations.

English Bitter

The rich history of English bitter dates back to the early 19th century. Over the years, it has evolved in color, strength, and flavor profile, offering delightful variations for those who delight in this classic beer. Although it remains relatively rare outside its homeland, a select few craft breweries continue to champion and celebrate this time-honored style, ensuring its continued presence in the world of beer connoisseurs.

Key Takeaways

  • English bitter is a distinctive, sessionable beer style with origins in England
  • This style has a rich history dating back to the early 19th century, evolving in color, strength, and flavor over time
  • Though not commonly found outside England, a few craft breweries carry on the tradition of creating these well-balanced, flavorful ales

History of English Bitter

English bitter, a style of beer that originated in England in the 1600s, gained popularity in the industrial town of Burton-on-Trent in East Staffordshire. Brewers in this area utilized local water with a high content of calcium sulfate, which contributed to an almost hop-like flavor in the beer.

The term “bitter” has been associated with pale ale since the early 19th century in England. Although the term “pale ale” was used by brewers themselves, customers in public houses would request “bitter” to distinguish it from the milder ale. By the end of the 19th century, brewers started adopting the term as well.

English bitter witnessed a surge in popularity during the 20th century. This beer style was characterized by its amber color, dry hoppy flavor, and slight malty sweetness. It typically had a low carbonation level and an alcohol by volume (ABV) of 3-6%.

Despite being a popular beer style in England, the difference between an English Bitter and an English Pale Ale is quite unclear. Even British brewers often use the two terms interchangeably, along with other similar terms such as Strong Ale, Premium Ale, and Strong Pale Ale.

English bitter may not be the national drink of England, but it has certainly played a significant role in the country’s beer-drinking history and culture. Today, it remains a popular choice among beer enthusiasts across the globe who appreciate its unique taste and rich history.

Characteristics and Styles

Ordinary Bitter

Ordinary Bitter is a light, sessionable English beer style. With a gold to copper color, it ranges in alcohol content from 3.0% to 4.0% ABV. The body is light to medium, and it has low residual malt sweetness. The aroma and flavor often have a fruity character, and hop bitterness is medium. The balanced nature of this beer makes it very drinkable and popular among UK beer enthusiasts.

Best Bitter

Best Bitter is a step up from Ordinary Bitter in terms of alcohol content, ranging from 4.1% to 4.6% ABV. The color is similar, with gold to copper hues, but the hop bitterness tends to be more pronounced. The beer is still well-balanced and may have a somewhat dry finish. The aroma and flavor can have a touch of diacetyl, adding complexity to the overall profile.

Special Bitter

Special Bitter is another step up in alcohol content, typically falling between 4.6% and 5.0% ABV. The color and appearance remain similar to the other variations, with gold to copper hues and a medium body. However, the hoppy character may be more noticeable in this style, while still being a well-balanced and highly drinkable beer.

Premium Bitter

Premium Bitter is a higher gravity beer style, featuring an alcohol content of around 5.1% to 5.5% ABV. It still has the characteristic gold to copper color of the Bitter family, along with the medium body and balanced flavor profile. It may feature more malt character than its lower ABV counterparts, giving the beer more depth and complexity.

Extra Special Bitter (ESB)

Extra Special Bitter, or ESB, is another higher gravity beer style, which can range from 5.5% to 6.2% ABV. Characterized by its gold to copper color and medium body, ESBs offer a more intense hoppy character. The increased hop bitterness is still well-balanced by its malt backbone, providing a harmonious and highly enjoyable English ale experience.

Ingredients and Brewing Process


English Bitter beer primarily uses British Pale Ale and Crystal malts, providing a strong base for the brew. Crystal malt, for example, is found in Good Word’s Digital Comforts English bitter, combined with Maris Otter as the base. These malts contribute to the characteristic color range of pale amber to light copper and enhance the bready, biscuity, or light toast flavors in the final product. It’s essential to use quality malts to achieve the desired taste and complexity in the beer.


When it comes to hops, English Bitters typically utilize English hop varieties, such as East Kent Golding (EKG) and Fuggle. These hops provide a well-balanced hop bitterness, with flavors and aromas that complement the malt base. They help maintain the balance between maltiness and hop bitterness integral to the style.


The yeast used in English Bitter brewing plays a crucial role in characterizing the beer. Choosing the correct yeast strain is vital for imparting the desired fruitiness, esters, and fermentation profile. In many recipes, White Labs 022 Essex Ale is recommended (though Wyeast 1968 may also be used). This yeast species produces a clean, fruity, and slightly estery profile that complements the malt and hop flavors in the brew.


The water used in the brewing process can affect the beer’s overall profile. In English Bitter brewing, it’s essential to ensure that the water contains a good quantity of calcium sulfate, as this can impact the bitterness and overall character of the beer. Additionally, target water profiles should be around 100 ppm SO4 and 50 ppm chloride, with minimal carbonates. Using fresh, quality water is vital for achieving a tasty, well-balanced beer.

Flavor Profile

English Bitter is a versatile beer style that emphasizes sessionability, lower alcohol content, and malt-driven flavors. The hop bitterness is medium, and the alcohol content typically falls below 5% ABV. The beer’s color tends to range from a light copper to a rich gold, giving it a visual appeal that complements its inviting taste profile.

The foundation of the English Bitter’s flavor profile is its malt character, presenting a low residual malt sweetness. Caramel and biscuit-like notes are often present, balancing the hop bitterness and building the beer’s unique profile. Esters can be fruit notes, commonly manifesting as a subtle fruitiness in both the aroma and taste. In some cases, diacetyl might be present, adding a slight buttery undertone to the beer.

With International Bitterness Units (IBU) ranging from 20 to 35, English Bitters are not overwhelmingly bitter, but rather moderately balanced. This allows the malt and hop flavors to intermingle harmoniously, creating an enjoyable and complex flavor that is distinctive and approachable. Furthermore, the moderate hop profile opens up a range of potential hop-derived flavors, such as earthy, floral, and herbal notes.

Despite its lower ABV, the flavor of English Bitter doesn’t fall short. Instead, the beer delivers a satisfying experience for drinkers who appreciate a well-rounded, sessionable beer. Above all, English Bitter is an exceptionally drinkable and enjoyable style that can be appreciated by beer enthusiasts and casual drinkers alike.

Carbonation and Clarity

English Bitter, a traditional British beer style, has specific characteristics when it comes to carbonation and clarity. These factors are crucial to the overall experience and enjoyment of the beer.

In terms of carbonation, English Bitters typically have lower levels of carbonation compared to other beer styles. This is due to the traditional method of serving English Bitters as cask-conditioned ales. Cask conditioning involves naturally fermenting the beer in a cask, allowing for a gentle build-up of carbon dioxide, which results in a delicate carbonation. The carbonation range of an English Bitter usually falls between 1 and 2 volumes of CO2, giving the beer a more subtle and smooth mouthfeel.

Clarity is another essential aspect of English Bitters. While some beer styles embrace a hazy appearance, English Bitters are generally expected to have a clear and bright visual quality. This is achieved through a combination of factors such as proper brewing techniques, the use of fining agents, and appropriate conditioning time. By ensuring the proper clarity of the beer, its delicate and nuanced flavors can shine through without being overshadowed by any haze or cloudiness.

Although most English Bitters are served cask-conditioned, it is becoming more common to see bottled or kegged variations on the market. This shift has led to some variability in carbonation levels within the style. However, the traditional low levels of carbonation remain an important characteristic of the style, as it contributes to the overall balance and drinkability of the beer.

Glassware and Serving

English Bitter, also known as Extra Special Bitter (ESB), is a traditional British beer style known for its malt-driven flavor profile and sessionable, lower alcohol content. When it comes to enjoying this classic ale, the choice of glassware and serving methods can significantly impact the overall tasting experience.

The proper glass for an English Bitter should promote both the formation and retention of foam, which enhances the beer’s aroma and flavor. A popular choice is a traditional pint glass or a Nonic pint glass, which has a slight bulge near the top. This design allows for a comfortable grip, prevents glasses from sticking together when stacked, and helps to maintain the head. Another suitable option is the Tulip glass, which has a wider, rounded body that narrows at the top to retain the beer’s aroma and support the foam head.

When it comes to serving English Bitters, temperature and carbonation levels play a crucial role. Ideally, this beer style should be served at 50°F (10°C) rather than the cooler temperatures suitable for other ales or lagers. Serving the beer too cold can mute the malt flavors and aromas that define the style. A higher serving temperature allows the beer’s distinct characteristics to shine through.

Moreover, English Bitters are traditionally served with a lower level of carbonation compared to most other beers. Lower carbonation complements the smooth, malt-driven flavor profile. Thus, when kegging an English Bitter, it’s essential to set the carbonation level accordingly to ensure a balanced and authentic drinking experience.

Iconic English Bitters

English Bitters are a popular and classic style of beer that originated in the UK. These beers are characterized by their balanced flavor profile, with a subtle hop bitterness complementing the malt sweetness. There are numerous examples of iconic English Bitters that showcase the depth and variety of this classic beer style.

London Pride is a popular English Bitter produced by Fuller’s Brewery. With its rich, malty backbone and a smooth, balanced bitterness, it is an excellent example of the style. It has gained a loyal following among beer enthusiasts for both its taste and its iconic brand artwork.

Bluebird Bitter by Coniston Brewing Company is another well-regarded English Bitter. It features a delicate hop aroma and a gentle bitterness that makes it an easy-drinking, sessionable ale. Bluebird Bitter has been awarded several accolades for its quality, including the CAMRA Champion Beer of Britain.

Spitfire Premium Kentish Ale is a classic English Bitter hailing from Shepherd Neame, Britain’s oldest brewery. Its distinct copper color and spicy, fruity hop profile are achieved by using Kentish hops such as Challenger, First Gold, and Goldings.

Adnams Southwold Bitter exemplifies the style with its amber hue, floral aroma, and balanced bitterness. Brewed by Adnams, this traditional English Bitter has been enjoyed by beer lovers for decades.

Variety is also a hallmark of English Bitters, as demonstrated in this diverse list of other iconic examples:

  • Ruddles County
  • Uncle Teddy’s Bitter
  • Hopback Summer Lightning
  • McNellie’s Pub Ale
  • Session Ale-Extra Special Bitter
  • Ruby Red Ale
  • Chester County Bitter
  • Ridgeway Bitter
  • Colonel Blides Cask Ale
  • Old Brewery Bitter
  • Boltmaker
  • Camerons Strongarm
  • Sussex Best Bitter
  • HSB (Horndean Special Bitter)
  • Hopping Hare
  • Hooky Bitter
  • Pure UBU
  • Organic Best Bitter
  • Brains The Rev. James

These beers showcase the rich heritage and diversity of English Bitters, offering a full range of flavors, aromas, and drinking experiences for beer lovers to enjoy. Each has its unique characteristics and has contributed to the ongoing popularity of this classic British beer style.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the main difference between a bitter and a stout?

Bitters and stouts are both types of beer, but they have distinct characteristics. Bitters are usually lighter in color, with a fruitiness in the aroma and flavor. They typically have a moderate alcohol content and a balanced taste between malt and hop bitterness. Stouts, on the other hand, are darker, heavier beers with roasted malt flavors and a creamy texture. They often have notes of coffee and chocolate, and can vary in alcohol content.

Which breweries are known for producing English bitters?

Some well-known breweries for producing English bitters include Fuller’s, Greene King, Marston’s, and Timothy Taylor. These breweries produce a variety of English bitters that showcase the unique characteristics of this beer style.

How does an English bitter differ from an American bitter?

English bitters differ from American bitters primarily in their hop profile and malt character. English bitters tend to have a more balanced flavor, with a subtle hop bitterness that comes from traditional English hop varieties. This creates a more approachable and less aggressive taste than American bitters, which often use American hop varieties that can be more assertive in flavor and aroma.

What are the characteristics of an extra special bitter?

Extra Special Bitter (ESB) is a stronger version of the traditional English bitter. ESBs have a higher alcohol content (typically around 4.5-5.5% ABV) and a more pronounced balance between maltiness and hop bitterness. They also tend to have a fuller body and increased complexity in their flavor profiles, making them appealing to those looking for a heartier and more robust bitter.

Which English bitters are popular in the USA?

Some popular English bitters available in the USA include Fuller’s ESB, Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery Pale Ale, Marston’s Pedigree, and Wychwood Brewery’s Hobgoblin. These beers can often be found in specialty beer stores and at establishments with a diverse beer selection.

What is the typical ABV range for a best bitter beer?

A best bitter beer typically has an alcohol by volume (ABV) range of 3.8% to 4.7%. This makes them more potent than ordinary or session bitters, but not as strong as extra special bitters. The moderate alcohol content helps maintain a balanced and approachable flavor profile, making best bitters popular choices for many beer enthusiasts.

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