A club member, Matt Mead, asked at the this month’s Thirsty Thirsday for my suggestions for brewing a British ‘Best Bitter’ for our March competition, so I thought I’d share my perspective, heavily influenced by being a college student in London in the early 1970s, living in a hall of residence adjacent to Whitbread’s Moorgate brewery, with their taproom directly opposite! I actually wasn’t that discerning at that time, but cask ales were still prevalent and many pubs would have a dozen Bitters on tap, as they still do. Warm and flat, however, are common misperceptions! British beers are typically served at cellar temperatures, the low 50 degrees, and generally with light carbonation.
But first let’s start with the basics. A proper British Bitter, whether Ordinary, Best or Strong, really has to be made with high quality British pale ale malt at around 90% of the grain bill. Maris Otter is hard to beat. It’s pricier than your usual -2-row but it lends a truly authentic biscuity-malt character. O’Connors and Siciliano’s both carry it.
Crystal or caramel malt figures in all Bitter recipes, generally around 5%, and where the Lovibond value isn’t declared assume it’s 60L, which will give a well-rounded caramel flavor, color and light sweetness. But if you like 120L go for it.
Flaked maize at around 5% is very often used to lighten up the beer and/or wheat for a crisper mouthfeel, and to contribute some head. You don’t get much head in a British pub, but what you get you want to last!
Half a pound of sugar - take your pick between white, brown or something more esoteric - is also very common to aid in attenuation (see note below about yeast).
OK let’s talk about hops. First off, ‘Bitter’ is confusing to American drinkers but it comes from a comparison with ‘Mild’, not with American hop-bombs! Most British ‘Ordinary’ and ‘Best’ Bitters are around 30 IBU (40 IBU for a ‘Strong’ to balance the extra malt). They should be balanced! Aside from bittering, the BJCP guidelines suggest low to moderate hop aroma and flavor, but again (in my opinion), this is compared to American pale ales and IPA’s. In reality English finishing hops have real character; think Challenger (fruity and spicy), Fuggles (fruity, spicy, woody), Target (spicy, peppery, hints of citrus marmalade), and the all-time classic Kent Goldings (earthy, spicy, notes of honey and lavender). I have a book of recipes and processes for British beers and many of them employ hops at flame-out, which is all about aroma! So, I say don’t be afraid of finishing with something that makes your beer taste like you want it to taste!
Choose a yeast that contributes some fruity esters. Jamil Zainasheff in his brilliant book ‘Brewing Classic Styles’ suggests low-attenuating (~70%), yeast that contributes “subtle fruit-like flavors and aromas ranging from pale fruits like apple and pear to dark fruits like fig and plum”. He suggests White Labs WLP002 English Ale , Wyeast 1968 London ESB, or if you prefer dry yeast, Ferments Safale S-04.
Lastly water! For my money a balanced profile does the trick. Maybe a bit higher sulfate if you like your beer hoppier, or higher chloride if you favor maltier, but I don’t think it's critical. I’ve also read that the ‘classic’ Burton-on-Trent profile with very high sulfate is rubbish; best ignored! If you have municipal water you should be able to get a profile from your city or township. Understanding what you’re starting with is important. If nothing else, install a carbon filter to remove chlorine or chloramine, as these will carry through into your beer.
That’s it for now. Happy brewing. See you at the next meeting.