I have mentioned this before but it bears repeating that every once in a while I get hop fatigued from all the big, brash IPA’s here on the West Coast, not to mention the generous hop profile of almost every other beer style out this way. When this ennui sets in I want something with just a touch of hoppy bitterness, or dare I say subtlety, while still maintaining the light bodied crispness of the pale ale family. Now before you start throwing holy water on me and shoving crucifixes in my face I absolutely have a place in my beer stockpile for the hop bombs but this time out I want to delve into the diversity of the bitter family.
Pale Ales and Bitters comprise one of those beer families where the style names tend to be used freely and interchangeably. According to Mosher in Tasting Beer, the term Pale Ale typically applies to bottled beers on the strong end of the range while Bitter generally refers to drafts of all strengths. Add into the mix the qualifiers “Ordinary”, “Best”, “Special” and “Extra Special Bitter or ESB” and we are not really that much further ahead in our understanding. For quite some time I simply thought IPA=USA and ESB=UK but this is a bit too simplistic.
At the heart of the style lay the common elements of lightly kilned pale ale malt, which imparts that subtle nutty flavour and just a bit of toastiness, and hops in varying quantities to add the requisite bitterness. India Pale Ales comprise the far end of the hop spectrum while the English Pale Ales and Bitters offer a more balanced profile but tend to blur the style boundaries. Turning back to Mosher, he suggests, English Pales Ales tend to be more substantial beers than bitters, can be brewed with all-malt versions and must display the English hop character (especially important to the aroma). I guess this leaves the term Bitter to denote everything else.
According to the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) Style Guidelines the English Pale Ales are divided into three styles Standard/Ordinary Bitter, Special/Best/Premium Bitter and Extra Special/Strong Bitter. I have included the ‘Overall Impressions’ provided in the guidelines to give you a rough idea of what differentiates the three bitters apart from adjectives:
Standard/Ordinary Bitter – Low gravity, low alcohol levels and low carbonation make this an easy-drinking beer. Some examples can be more malt balanced, but this should not override the overall bitter impression. Drinkability is a critical component of the style; emphasis is still on the bittering hop addition as opposed to the aggressive middle and late hopping seen in American ales.
Special/Best/Premium Bitter – A flavorful, yet refreshing, session beer. Some examples can be more malt balanced, but this should not override the overall bitter impression. Drinkability is a critical component of the style; emphasis is still on the bittering hop addition as opposed to the aggressive middle and late hopping seen in American ales.
Extra Special/Strong Bitter – An average-strength to moderately-strong English ale. The balance may be fairly even between malt and hops to somewhat bitter. Drinkability is a critical component of the style; emphasis is still on the bittering hop addition as opposed to the aggressive middle and late hopping seen in American ales. A rather broad style that allows for considerable interpretation by the brewer.
Got that? Me neither, so let me try to put this into terms that speak to what really matters to beer geeks …what do I put in my fridge?
For this portion of the show I present two examples of the style for your considerations. The first is East Side Bitter from R & B Brewing Co. This beer is named after a vibrant area in Vancouver, and the bottle sports a great label featuring street signs, a transformer and shoes hanging from the power lines. Rick and Barry (R & B) describe the beer as “not your typical English Extra Special Bitter. Northwest hops and lots of them added to the kettle and a ridiculous amount added post fermentation give this beer its unique aroma and crisp refreshing finish.” The second beer is Extra Special Barney from Full Sail Brewing Company. This beer is the part of the Brewer’s Share series from Full Sail; four times a year the brewery lets the brewers create at will and then the winner’s brew is shared with the “entire beer-geekosphere”. Extra Special Barney is the winning creation from brewer Barney Brennan. The beer is described as “a nicely balanced small batch bitter…featuring five different specialty malts and aromatic Challenger hops.”
Before I move onto my reviews can I just say kudos to both brewers for their clever use of acronyms, as a geek in general (not just a beer geek) I appreciate the word play.
East Side Bitter – A clear, copper/amber coloured beer with tons of cream coloured head that sticks around. Very hop heavy on the nose with pine notes and some floral elements. Bitter taste at the front of the mouth and a slightly sticky mouthfeel. The hop character seems to be all in the mouthfeel with a surprisingly subtle finish. Settles nicely, becoming smoother as it warms in the glass. An ABV of 5.5%. Overall 3.5/5
Extra Special Barney – Pours clear light amber with a small amount of white head. Subtle malt on the nose and a caramel, fruit sweetness in the mouthfeel. Some hops come through in the flavour but not overwhelmingly so. Medium bodied with a bitter, burnt toast, finish. Like the East Side Bitter it warms nicely in the glass smoothing out the flavours. An ABV of 6.5%. Overall 4/5