Roman philosopher Seneca from the first century AD wrote, “Nothing is so bitter that a calm mind cannot find comfort in it.” Comfort in that which is bitter… why then, do so many Americans shun the bitter and gravitate to the sweet?
We women, in particular, con ourselves into believing we only like sweet drinks and sweet foods – just because we’re sweet inside. But how many times have you found yourself seeking out a strong, bitter Starbucks coffee to awaken your spirit or an aperitif of Angostura bitters to sluice the tongue with freshness before a meal? We seem to like the bitterness of dark chocolate, accompanied with a drink freshened with citrus peel, too.
The Brits seem to understand how sweet a bitter experience really can be. Bitter is the national drink of England and it doesn’t scare them one bit. Using pale malt as a base, the brewer may gently allow caramelized malt to jazz-up the color, or add invert sugar for distinctive flavor. Tradition dictates that English hops be used, with a preference for Fuggles or East Kent Goldings. These impart a firm bitterness, stroked with a fruity, earthy essence or a dash of pine softness.
True bitters are conditioned in the cask, and the cellarman takes special care to treat the living yeast with delicacy. It is not uncommon for this unpressurized style of beer to have a dominant yeasty character that signals its freshness. Those pubs in England that are so proud to preserve tradition will pull pints on the hand pump, displaying an unfiltered beer with a lean layer of foam, served at cellar temperatures.
Each brewery uses a strain of yeast that lends its own character to the beer. Some of these yeasts develop fruity flavors that mimic orange, citrusy flavors with a residual sweetness. Others are infused with banana notes. In some cases, the brewer adds extra hops to the cask, allowing the fresh aromatics to sink lovingly into the beer.
These beers are meant for a long relationship with the drinker, one that can last an entire evening. They are best served in a pint glass, and merit a firm grasp, not the girly three-finger hold with the pinky sticking out. Since they are cellar temperature, the glass isn’t nearly as cold as your typical sweaty macro-lager; so remember to use a firm grip, ladies!
Bitters fall within the range of 3.5 to 5.5% alcohol by volume, making them a beer to enjoy over conversation. Ordinary bitters or milds are the lowest in alcohol at 3.5%, while Best Bitters knock it up by a half-notch with a little extra hopping. Special Bitters may have a bit more caramel color and sweetness, and weigh-in at 5%. And what about ESB? These are Extra Special Bitters, a more aggressive style with a firm malt base, unmistakable fruitiness, and a long balanced bitterness.
The best true examples of English Bitters should be sampled at their source. These are session beers that have luscious flavors coaxed out of the cask. They are not meant for sipping, but for drinking – much akin to passing beyond passive flirting into a gutsy, lush affair.
Who makes the short list?
Fuller’s Chiswick Bitter of Fuller Smith and Turner, London, England – Ordinary Bitter
Horndean Special Bitter of George Gale & Company, Hordean, England – Special Bitter
Wells Bombardier Special Bitter of Wells and Young's, Bedford, England –ESB
Camerons Strongarm of Castle Eden & Camerons Brewing Company, Hartlepool, England – Special Bitter
Brakspear Bitter of W. H. Brakspear & Sons, Henley on Thames, England – English Bitter
Black Cat of Moorhouse’s Brewery, Lancashire, England – Dark English Mild
Bishop’s Farewell of Oakham Ales. The Brewery Tap, Peterborough, England – ESB
Mr Harry of Fuller Smith & Turner, London, England – Special Bitter
American versions are generally … Americanized, brewed with a bit more assertiveness – fuller carbonation, higher strength, and with that individualistic, over-the-top hoppiness that has become so coveted throughout the world. But that’s another bedtime story …
Be ready with your own pint glasses:
Arc International Luminarc Specialty Pub Glass, 16-Ounce, Set of 12
Play around with some fun authenticity with an English Cap:
Black English Ivy Drivers Golf Hat Flat Newsboy Cabbie Cap