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In the pub with best bitter and pale ale


BB Styles Bitter1 small

The Great British Beer Festival, held annually in London in August, is the world’s largest showcase for best bitters and pale ales.

By: Stephen Beaumont


Now thought of as the iconic British pub beer, best bitter only truly came into its own during the Victorian era and didn’t become Britain’s pint of choice until sometime around the mid-twentieth century. In character, it assumes three basic forms: ordinary or standard bitter, a beer of about 3.5% to 4% alcohol and of mild bitterness, sometimes perceived as more tannic than bitter and balanced by a softly fruity maltiness; best bitter, ranging up to 4.5% or even 5% alcohol and slightly more pronounced in both malt and hop character; and ESB, or extra special bitter, which can be 5.5% alcohol or higher and more malty and hoppy still.


BB Styles Bitter2 small

In addition to adding generous amounts of American hops to their pale ales, some U.S. breweries, like California’s Stone Brewing, also include a generous dose of irreverence. 

Although it is often thought of as a different style, best bitter’s synonym is pale ale, a brighter, lighter hued ale developed in the English midlands brewing town of Burton-on-Trent after advances made during the Industrial Revolution enabled the production of lighter coloured malt. While history notes instances where pale ale and bitter were used both separately and interchangeably, by the late twentieth century there was little doubt left that these beers were effectively two sides of the same coin, with the only significant difference being that, in the U.K., at least, bitters appear more commonly as cask-conditioned or nitrokeg draught ales whereas pale ales are more often bottled.


In the United States and now elsewhere in the world, as well, a different form of pale ale has taken hold, commonly identified as American pale ale, or sometimes APA, regardless of where the beer is brewed. These ales are typified by the use of American hops, most often the so-called “c-hops” – Cascade, Centennial, Columbus, Chinook, and more recently, Citra. These and several other varieties of U.S. grown hops give the beer a sharper bitterness than would be typical of a British pale ale, often with flavour and aroma notes of grapefruit or lemon peel, pine or citrus juice.


And that remains the primary point of difference between pale ales styles fashioned after the British or American model. The former will most often be perceived as dry or nutty and perhaps mild to moderately bitter, while the latter will normally be far more assertive, even aggressive in their bitterness.


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