Brewing English-Style Bitter: Tips from the Pros

Brewer: Andy Ingram, Four Peaks Brewing in Tempe, AZ

Our award winning “8th Street Ale” is based on Young’s Ramrod beer. A gentleman by the name of Barry John, who worked for Youngs & Company in London for 35 years, worked with me on the recipe. The definition we give for our bitter ale probably makes it closer to a “best bitter” in technical brewing circles, but we take the liberty of calling it an “ordinary bitter.” The ordinary bitter has a starting gravity around 1.032. Ours is closer to 1.048, which is why I admit that the brew is closer to a “best.” Either way, it’s bitter . . . and delicious!

What I focus on in the brewing process is the ingredients. Maris Otter malt is the traditional English malt used in bitter ales — in fact, for some brewers, it is considered a “must have” if you are going to make any English style beer. But I have a bulk silo and dealing with one special grain for one beer just makes no sense from an economical standpoint.

Instead what I use as the base malt is Cargill’s two-row Metcalfe. It is from their Prairie Malt branch. I find it to be light and clean, with really clean flavors. To create the sweetness, flavor and color we would get from the Maris Otter malt, but don’t get from the regular two-row malt, we have to use a variety of other malts in the grist. I add Carapils, crystal (80 ºL) and 5% Munich malt. This combination, in my opinion, provides the toasty maltiness and color that the beer would otherwise lack.

Another malt choice, however, could be Briess Munich (10 ºL). I think this grain would work well as the base malt and would provide the color and flavor you are looking for in your bitter ale. Vienna malt (at around 6 °L) may even be a better choice because it has better enzymatic qualities, which means it will convert better during the mash if you use a high percentage of it in your grist.

Of course, if you choose to use either Munich or Vienna malts, be sure to cut back on the crystal malts (and all other dark malts). Dark copper is the darkest color I would recommend to anyone looking to make a bitter ale. I actually prefer to go even lighter than that — I never go beyond the 10–11 SRM range as a general rule of thumb for this brew.

Brewing is nothing more than a simple, one-step infusion mash. We shoot for 154 ºF (68 ºC) and typically get full conversion in fifteen minutes. We continue mashing for another thirty minutes after that, but anything beyond that would really just be overkill. Our malts are so modified that this is more than enough time for the mash.

We bitter with U.K. Golding. No other hops are added until the whirlpool. We use U.S. Fuggles in a hop back. We spent a lot of time debating whether we would dry hop this beer but ultimately decided against it. We thought we would get better character and flavor from a hop back. This device essentially holds about 20 pounds (9 kg) of Fuggles and we run the post-boil wort through it. The wort goes through the hops at approximately 208 ºF (98 ºC) into the heat exchanger and then finally on to the fermenter.

The brew ends up with 21 IBUs, but my personal opinion is it drinks even more than that. The fresh hop aroma and flavor from the hop back gives the sense that it is a hoppier ale than the number 21 indicates.

We are lucky to have a proprietary ale yeast that is a derivative of the London Ale yeast. Basically, this yeast was isolated and given to us. It is very clean and has the capability to ferment much cooler than most other ale yeasts. We ferment at 63 ºF (17 ºC). This cuts down on esters, though I’m of the opinion that our beer style has a bit of apricot character.


Brewer: Ed Herrmann, Upland Brewing Company in Bloomington, IN

It is safe to say that we take a different approach with our bitter ale. Our Upland Pale Ale is really more of an American bitter than your traditional English bitter. Even so, it won the Silver Medal in the bitter category at the 2003 Great American Brewing Festival.

We use lots of Cascade hops when making this beer. That is one of the things that really sets it apart. We originally thought of it as a crossover beer. It was meant to be one of those brews that someone switching from mass-produced beers to craft brews could get excited about.

We like to see a light malt character in this beer. It should not have any roasted grain flavor. The malt character should be evident and present, but certainly not overwhelming.

Because the name suggests the beer is going to be “bitter,” it is a good idea to select the right kind of bittering hop, which are not all made in the same way. Some might have a high alpha acid but also be high in co-humulone. We like the Cluster hop variety because they work well for hearty bittering. The Cluster gives our bitter a smooth and pleasant bitterness that the style calls for. It is safe to say that a good bitter ale should be smooth, like a session beer. Ours has that flavor quality, but is a little high in alcohol content to quite qualify for session drinking.

A good homebrewing grist for a ten-gallon batch of bitter ale might look something like this: 18 pounds (8 kg) of pale malt, 1.5 pounds (0.7 kg) of Munich malt and 0.3 pounds (0.1 kg) of crystal (40 ºL). If you want to try and make this beer the way we have, try the same hops we use with a similar schedule for your first batch. Of course, if you find you desire more or less in the way of bitterness you can always make changes in hop selection for future batches.

We use a British ale yeast and ferment at a cool 63 ºF (17 ºC). Most brewers go warmer than that because it allows the beer to turn around more quickly and gives more zip to the brew. I find the cooler fermentation temperatures result in a smoother beer.

Homebrewers should feel free to experiment with any ideas they glean from professional brewers, other homebrewers and books. What I have learned in my years of brewing is that following the recipe is just a starting point: all the other details — like fermentation temperature and cleanliness, to name just a couple — are the determinant factors in the beer’s final quality.

Issue: September 2004