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Bitter Be Back

Why your Grandad’s favourite beer is the most in-demand style

Once upon a short while ago, taproom beer lists were a Scooby-Doo corridor of interchangeable pale ales, with an embellishing stout or sour to provide some novel semblance of variety. Drinkers of a certain generation were feeling left out, ironically watching history repeat itself as they had spent their own formative pub years with just a meagre few options on the bar.

Yet, an unforeseeable ripple of recent global events was a revival of interest in cask bitter from both producers and consumers. While we were mostly all confined to our homes for months on end, breweries were still churning out the beers, albeit with a focus on cans and bottles for our kitchen fridges as opposed to casks and kegs for pub cellars. Granted, this did to an extent provide a carte blanche for brewers to push the envelope with experimental and wild ideas and recipes.

However, the longer the pubs remained closed the more and more we missed them. We had enough beer, fine, but the conviviality and warmth we garner from gathering with friends, family and loved ones over a few rounds was an experience difficult to replicate at home. Moreover, brewers were also missing the core soul of producing a beer designed exclusively for packaging into cask, to be conditioned in a cellar, and dispensed from a handpull.

Absence made the bar grow fonder, in this case fonder for the archetype of British beer; the traditional bitter. A beautiful deep golden body with a pristine foamy white head. Aromas of biscuits and berries, with a flavour of sweet malt giving way to a long, floral bitterness. The ideal accompaniment to the autumn season.

Recent examples of this revival have come from craft stalwarts such as Siren and Rivington, most associated with heavily hopped IPAs, strong stouts, or sours. Nonetheless Siren’s Memento and Rivington’s (in collaboration with fellow Lancashire micro-brewery Brewsmith) I Get A Kick Out Of Brew haven’t left their innovative hallmarks at the door. Both offerings prefix their style markers with ‘modern’, implying the inclusion of a non-traditional hop portfolio to the recipe. Such tweaks to tradition only serve to amplify the flavours most closely associated with the humble British best bitter. Redwillow go a step further with their American Bitter, with US Columbus and Cascade hops being worn proudly on its sleeve.

So irresitible is the pull of bitter that brewers not even known for producing cask beer are getting in on the hype. Bristol’s Lost & Grounded, best known for their specialisation in modern lager, have just released Autumn Protagonist a 4.4% bitter hopped with all UK varietals, though L&G have applied their vast knowledge of German and Belgian brewing methods to give a what they say is a “continental slant to this traditional English style”.

Similarly, West Yorkshire rising stars Salt Beer Factory have recently made a name for themselves brewing explosively hoppy IPAs destined for keg and can, but they too have decided to put their take on a traditional bitter, simply yet elegantly named Best Bitter.

Though while this may seem like a current fad due to inevitably fizzle out like most trends in brewing [remember that one summer of Mango Milkshake IPAs everywhere?], some are holding steadfast and arguing that bitter never really went away at all.

Husband and wife duo Les and Julie O’Grady from Merseyside’s Neptune say “as a modern brewery inspired by tradition we’ve always taken the view that the humble English Bitter is not in fact quite so humble! This style celebrates the very best of how, when balanced well, malt and hops can both be the stars of the show in the drinker’s glass.”

Indeed, when it comes to the ingredients on show the O’Gradys have been keen to throw as much support as possible behind the English hop-growing community. Their new series of bitters, Forecast, uses the same base of British Chevalier Heritage Malt in each brew as the beer’s backbone, whilst each new edition showcases the best of a single English hop, with Godiva and Bullion already celebrated since Forecast’s launch this Autumn.

Also in their current range is the stronger and more robust Silenus, named after the companion and tutor to the wine god Dionysus, from Greek mythology, which takes your traditional bitter and dials everything up a couple of notches.

Whether a phase or not, the traditional English bitter will always have a home at the Bowland Beer Hall. While we love beer in all its many different forms and flavours, sometimes the heartiest of pleasures lie where the journey of British beer all began.

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