Ordinary Bitter

On returning from a visit to London, a friend asked me what I liked best about my trip. I responded, “bitter.” This was met with a blank stare. I quickly told him about how bitter is a flavorful, low-alcohol, English ale and when served on cask as real ale, it takes on a slightly different character in each pub. This was met with another blank stare. Then I explained that bitter is a session beer. Session beers allow one to stop at their local public house (called a pub or local), have a couple of pints, and remain sober enough to discuss issues of the day, thus lubricating social discourse. (OK, maybe I’m more of a beer geek than I thought.)

Ordinary bitter is a style that sometimes draws blank stares even from beer geeks. Contrary to its name, ordinary bitter is neither ordinary nor extremely bitter. While this is a low-alcohol, low-gravity beer style, a properly made bitter is more flavorful and more balanced between malt sweetness and hop bitterness than the name would lead you to believe. An ordinary bitter should be firmly bitter, but the bitterness should not be overwhelming or completely overpower the malt. Ordinary bitter is a session beer meant to be consumed in multiple pints, so balance is important.

One of the characteristics that many people identify with English beers is a slight biscuity malt flavor and aroma. Ordinary bitter is no exception and in a good rendition of the style you should be able to pick up at least a hint of biscuit. This style should also have a moderate amount of fermentation derived fruity esters, often pear and apple. The hop aroma and flavor in the beer come from traditional English hops of the earthy and floral types, but it is usually a minor note in the beer and it should not hide the fruity esters.

Ordinary bitter most often ranges in color from deep golden to a very light copper, with a few exceptions on either end. These beers are also very clear, due to the highly flocculent yeast. Any head is minimal, due to the light body and low carbonation. The overall result is an easy drinking, flavorful, low-alcohol beer.

Appropriate Base Malt

To brew a great ordinary bitter, you need to pay particular attention to your base malt selection. British pale ale malt is the key to getting that biscuit-like malt character mentioned above. British pale ale malt is kilned a bit darker (2.5 to 3.5 °L) than the average American two-row or pale malt (1.5 to 2.5 °L) and this higher level of kilning brings out the malt’s biscuity flavors. A few malt companies — Crisp Malting, for example — still produce British pale ale malt from cultivars such as Maris Otter using a traditional floor malting method. The result is malt with a slightly darker color (3.5 to 4.0 °L) and more flavor than other pale ale malts. It is the malt of choice for many English beer fanatics.

If you’re brewing with malt extract, your best choice is an extract made from British pale ale malt. There are British style malt extracts on the market made from 100% Maris Otter malt and they are an excellent choice for English beers. If you can’t get it through your local homebrew shop, you can find it online from several retailers. If you end up using domestic two-row malt or extract made from it, you’ll need to compensate with some additional specialty malts such as Munich, biscuit or Victory, but use restraint. For a 5-gallon (19-L) batch, add no more than 0.5 lbs. (0.23 kg) total.

British pale ale malt is highly modified and well suited to single infusion mashes, typical for all British beers. Since this style has such a low starting gravity, 1.032–1.040 S.G. (8–10 °P), you need to create some long chain, unfermentable sugars to provide enough mouthfeel and fullness in the finished beer. The lower the starting gravity of your bitter, the higher your mash temperature should be. A high mash temperature creates wort with more non-fermentable, complex sugars. It is these polysaccharides which result in enough residual gravity and body to keep the beer from being thin and watery. A mash temperature around 152–154 °F (67–68 °C) creates wort with the proper balance between long chain, non-fermentable sugars and simpler fermentable sugars. Mash thickness also plays a roll in determining the mix of fermentable and unfermentable sugars, though it is not as significant as mash temperature. A thicker mash favors long chain sugars and a thinner mash favors simpler sugars. If your setup is geared toward thinner mashes — more than 1.5 qts./lb. (3.1 L/kg) — you should stick to the higher end of the mash temperature range for this beer.

Crystal and Other Malts

In many bitter recipes, there is often some portion of crystal and other specialty malts, such as Special Roast, Victory and biscuit. Commercial examples range from minimal, low color additions to considerable amounts of mid-color specialty malts. Crystal malt adds body to the beer and helps fill out the malt flavors. Darker crystal malts add richer colors, as well as some dark caramel, toasty, roasted and raisin flavors. This style can handle up to a total of 10% crystal malt in the range of 40 °L to 150 °L without getting heavy and cloying. However, the darker the crystal, the less you should use. A bitter with 10% 150 °L crystal malt may not be cloying, but it can be too intense a flavor for this style. Specialty malts are a big part of what differentiates one brewer’s bitter from another, so feel free to play around with the amounts.

While corn or cane sugar is traditional in brewing many English beers, avoid using it in the smaller styles, such as ordinary bitter. Simple sugars ferment fully, thin the beer, and provide very little in the way of flavor contributions. Even brown sugar adds minimal caramel flavor, which is much better supplied by caramel malts.

Bittering a Bitter

Bitters are best brewed with moderate alpha acid English hops, such as East Kent Goldings or Fuggles. The bittering level is often in the range of 25 to 35 IBU, depending on the starting gravity and attenuation anticipated. Try to keep the bitterness to starting gravity ratio (IBU divided by OG) between 0.7 to 0.9, with the bulk of the hopping as a bittering addition at 60 minutes. A fine bitter can be made with just the single bittering hop addition, but I prefer a little more hop flavor and aroma, similar to what you might find in some of the more bold commercial examples. A small hop addition around 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 ounce (7 to 14 g) at 20 minutes and another addition of the same size at flame-out gives the beer just enough extra hop character to add interest. Remember that this isn’t a very hoppy style. If you do go with late hop additions, don’t go overboard. If you want to experiment with different hops, Challenger, Northdown and Willamette are interesting alternatives.

Traditional cask conditioning can include dry hopping, perhaps at 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 oz. (7 to 14 g) per 5 gallons (19 L). If you do dry hop this beer, you might want to reduce the late hop additions to keep the flavor and aroma subtle. For competition, sometimes a bit more hop character can be OK, but don’t go over the top.

It’s the Water?

Much has been written about the high sulfate water of Burton-upon-Trent being a key element in brewing bitters. It is true that water with high sulfate content enhances the sharp, bitter aspect of hops. However, this is very easily overdone, resulting in a chalky, metallic or harsh character. Brewers today brew good bitter with a wide range of water types. In most cases, any water is well suited as is, unless it is on the soft end of the spectrum. If you have soft water, add some gypsum or Burton Salts, but start low, targeting half the amount of sulfate typical of Burton water. Use no more than 1 tsp. of Burton Salts per 5 gallons or no more than 0.75 g/L. It is always better to add less than more. While this won’t exactly mimic the water of Burton-upon-Trent, it is more than enough to accentuate the hop bitterness. You can add your mineral salts to the mash water or, if you’re extract brewing, you can add it to your water before you heat it. For all other water types, try brewing without any additional mineral salts.

English Ale Yeast

Fermentation creates much of the flavor and aroma in a bitter. “English” yeast strains provide a variety of interesting esters and many of them do not attenuate quite as much as other ale yeasts. It is these characteristics, low attenuation and ester formation, that make English ale yeasts perfect for brewing low alcohol session beers. There are a number of other excellent English yeast strains to choose from, but my favorites are White Labs WLP002 (English Ale) and Wyeast 1968 (London ESB Ale).

Both of these yeasts attenuate 70% or less, leaving some residual sweetness to balance the bitterness and help fill out the beer. They are also extremely flocculent, which makes them ideal for cask conditioning. These yeasts produce a fairly low level of esters at cool fermentation temperatures (<65 °F/18 °C) and abundant fruity esters at high temperatures (>70 °F/21 °C). In general, it is better to start in the middle of this range, letting the temperature rise slowly, a few degrees, over a couple days. This creates the expected level of esters and also keeps the amount of diacetyl in the finished beer at a minimum. These yeasts can produce a fair amount of diacetyl. A cooler temperature at the start of fermentation and a warmer temperature toward the end help reduce the amount of diacetyl in the finished beer.

If you like to experiment with different yeasts, try to select English yeasts that create interesting ester profiles and attenuate no more than 75%. Several worthy of a batch or two are White Labs WLP005 (British Ale), WLP013 (London Ale), WLP017 (Whitbread Ale), WLP022 (Essex Ale), WLP023 (Burton Ale) and WLP026 (Premium Bitter Ale) or Wyeast 1098 (British Ale), 1318 (London Ale III) and 1099 (Whitbread Ale) yeast. If you prefer dry yeast, DCL Safale S-04 produces good results. A single fresh vial or pack of liquid yeast is the appropriate amount to pitch when making a 5-gallon (19-L) batch of ordinary bitter. With such a low gravity beer, you can get away with no starter, if your yeast is nice and fresh. If there is any doubt about the viability of your yeast, it is a good idea to make a 1 qt. (~ 1L) starter to proof the yeast and give it a bit of a head start. If you’re using dry yeast, 5 grams of properly rehydrated dry yeast is plenty. Ferment around 67 °F (19 °C), for all of these yeasts, with a minimum temperature of 65 °F (18 °C) and maximum of 70 °F (21 °C). No matter which yeast you’re using, it is important to aerate the wort immediately before or after pitching your yeast. Oxygen is important to proper cell growth and growth is important to flavor development.

Pulling Your Pint

It is very important to serve bitters at the proper temperature and carbonation level. While it might seem like it would be too warm, serving the beer at cellar temperature, around 55 °F (13 °C), allows the character of the beer to come out. Colder temperatures prevent the drinker from picking up the interesting flavors and aromas of this style, so don’t go below
50 °F (10 °C).

Gassy beers are much more difficult to drink in quantity and proper carbonation level is even more important for low gravity beers like bitter. Too much carbonation in a low gravity beer results in a harsh, carbonic bite. While carbonation is important to filling out the mouthfeel of a beer, and it helps drive aromas up to the nose, too much carbonation can make a small beer seem thin. Target a low level of carbonation, around 1.5 volumes of CO2 for bottled beer and 1 volume of CO2 for cask conditioned beer. A typical American pale ale is carbonated to around 2.5 volumes of CO2, so cut your priming sugar in half at bottling time and you’ll be close to the right level of


Ordinary bitter by the numbers:

OG: 1.032–1.040 (8–10 °P)
FG: 1.007–1.011 (1.8–2.8 °P)
SRM: 4–14
IBU: 25–35
ABV: 3.2–3.8%

Ordinary Bitter

5 gallons/19 L, all-grain; OG = 1.038  FG = 1.011; IBU = 30  SRM = 11  ABV = 3.5%


  • 7.0 lb. (3.2 kg) English pale ale malt
  • 0.50 lb. (0.23 kg) crystal malt (120 °L)
  • 0.25 lb. (0.11 kg) Special Roast malt (50 °L)
  • 5.75 AAU East Kent Goldings hops (60 mins) (1.2 oz./33 g of 5% alpha acids)
  • 2.5 AAU East Kent Goldings hops (30 mins) (0.50 oz./14 g of 5% alpha acid)
  • 0.50 oz. (14 g) East Kent Goldings hops (1 min.)
  • White Labs WLP002 (English Ale) or Wyeast 1968 (London ESB) yeast

Step by Step

Mill the grains and dough-in at around 1 qt. of water per pound of grain (about 2:1 L/kg) and a temperature of 152 °F (67 °C). Hold the mash at 152 °F (67 °C) for 60 minutes. Infuse the mash with near boiling water while stirring to raise the temperature to mash out at 168 °F (76 °C). Sparge slowly with 170 °F (77 °C) water, collecting wort until the pre-boil kettle volume is around 5.9 gallons (22 L) and the gravity is 1.032. Boil wort for 75 minutes. Add the bittering hops with 60 minutes remaining and the flavor hops with 30 minutes left in the boil. Add 1 tsp. Irish moss with 15 minutes left in the boil and add the last hop addition just before shutting off the burner. Chill the wort to 67 °F (19 °C), pitch yeast and aerate thoroughly. Ferment around 67 °F (19 °C) until the yeast drops clear. Allow the lees to settle and the brew to mature without pressure for another two days after fermentation appears finished. Rack to a keg or bottling bucket. Target a carbonation level of 1 to 1.5 volumes. (Use about 2.0 oz./57 g of corn sugar for bottle conditioning.) If you’re cask conditioning the beer, add priming sugar, any cask finings (gelatin or isinglass), and dry hop with 0.25 to 0.5 oz. (7–14 g) of whole East Kent Goldings hops. Allow the beer to condition in the cask for several days and serve via a beer engine or by gravity feed at 50–55 °F (10–13 °C).


Ordinary Bitter

5 gallons/19 L, extract w/ grains; OG = 1.038  FG = 1.011; IBU = 30  SRM = 11  ABV = 3.5%


  • 4.7 lb. (1.95 kg) Muntons pale liquid malt extract
  • 0.50 lb. (0.23 kg) crystal malt (120 °L)
  • 0.25 lb. (0.11 kg) Special Roast malt (50 °L)
  • 5.75 AAU East Kent Goldings hops (60 mins) (1.2 oz./33 g of 5% alpha acids)
  • 2.5 AAU East Kent Goldings hops (30 mins) (0.50 oz./14 g of 5% alpha acid)
  • 0.50 oz. (14 g) East Kent Goldings hops (1 min)
  • White Labs WLP002 (English Ale) or Wyeast 1968 (London ESB) yeast

Step by Step

Place the crushed grains in a grain bag and steep in about 2 gallons (~8 L) of water at ~170 °F (77 °C) for  30 minutes. Lift the grain bag out of the steeping liquid and rinse with warm water. Add enough water to the steeping liquid and malt extract to make a pre-boil volume of 5.68 gallons (21.5 L) and a gravity of 1.033 (8.40 °P). Stir thoroughly and bring to a boil. Once the wort is boiling, add the bittering hops. The total wort boil time is 1 hour after adding the bittering hops. During that time, add the flavor hops with 30 minutes remaining, Irish moss at 15 minutes, and the aroma hops just before shut-down. Chill the wort to 67 °F (19 °C), pitch yeast and aerate thoroughly. Follow the fermentation and packaging instructions for the all-grain version.


Issue: March-April 2007