The Bitter Truth

The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) guide is great for giving brewers a starting point on how to brew particular styles and to make sure they know how to have their homebrews come out like the beers they’re used to buying in bars and breweries. However, the beer world is huge and complex and having every single sub-style and regional variation categorized would be almost impossible. Some styles are thus simplified and categorized together for the sake of the framework.

In my opinion, the style most simplified in the BJCP style guide is English bitter. It is spread across three styles — ordinary, special, and strong — which fundamentally are varying gravities of the same style. Bitter is a style that through the course of history developed regional variations as a result of differing local tastes, economics, and environment. Only one of the six commercial examples given by the BJCP is North of Birmingham (Tetley’s), so clearly the focus is more on southern U.K. breweries. This largely overlooks a couple of variations of bitters that are very popular in northern England: The Manchester bitter and Yorkshire bitter.

Bitter across all three of the BJCP style listings has a color range from 8 SRM, reflecting the stereotypical amber color, and it caps out at 18 for strong bitter as beyond this you get into the mahogany hues more associated with brown ale. Bitterness goes from a humble 35 IBUs maximum for an ordinary up to the heady heights of 50 IBUs for a strong version. Final gravity for all three hovers around the 1.010 mark, suggesting a fuller mouthfeel than most pale styles. The profile highlights, unsurprisingly, a focus on bitterness with medium-to-low hop aroma, low-to-moderate malt character, a characterful British yeast, and a low level of carbonation. A lot of regional bitters just don’t fit into this homogenized “bitter” described. 

It would be impossible to look at all the regional variants, but since the BJCP focus is more on the southern U.K. bitter, I’ve chosen for this article to look at two northern regions whose bitters are not only atypical of the BJCP style guide, but also quite different from one other: Yorkshire bitter and Manchester bitter.

It’s important to point out that these styles are not exclusively the kinds of bitter brewed in these geographical areas. You do get northern breweries making the more “typical” style of bitter as well. Just like breweries in California make New England IPAs and Vermont breweries produce West Coast IPAs. 

For the readers of BYO who have not spent a great deal of time in my part of the world of northern England and may not even be familiar with the variations of bitter I’ll describe, I do hope you’ll give brewing these styles a try. You may just discover a whole new world of bitters beyond the confines of the BJCP guidelines you’ve followed before.

Manchester Bitter

Manchester bitter, sometimes called northwest bitter by breweries not located in the city itself, is the most unconventional of all regional bitter variants, with a much paler color and higher bitterness. Its history is rooted in Boddingtons Bitter. It’s hard to understate the cultural impact of Boddingtons since it was released in its modern form of Boddingtons Draught Bitter in 1971 (Boddingtons Bitter Beer that predates this was quite a bit stronger, and with a more complex malt bill).1 Boddingtons was so successful there was almost no room for other breweries to emulate it.

Boddingtons was lauded by beer critics and sold phenomenally well. It was originally distributed locally, but after Boddingtons was acquired by Whitbread in 1989 its production more than doubled and distribution widened. By 1993 it was the third most popular bitter in the U.K. (behind only Tetley’s and John Smith’s).2 This popularity continued throughout the nineties. The beer was marketed as “the cream of Manchester” and at its height was distributed to over 40 countries. The brand made bitter cool — it had models like Melanie Sykes in its advertisements, it was even referenced in an episode of Friends with Joey, Chandler, and Monica declaring their love for it after a visit to England. 

The beer’s downturn began shortly after Whitbread was bought out by Interbrew (now A-B InBev) in 2000, who in my opinion have mismanaged Boddingtons ever since. Production was moved out of Manchester, its successful advertising campaign not renewed, and the beloved cask version of Boddingtons was discontinued in 2012. Across North America where Boddingtons was once easy to find on grocery store shelves, the brand has gone scarce as AB-InBev focuses its attention elsewhere. 

Enter into the story Marble Beers.  Marble is a microbrewery that originally opened in the back of Manchester’s Marble Arch Pub in 1998, beginning its story just as Boddingtons was at its zenith. Their own Manchester Bitter was released as a love letter to Boddingtons, accepting the baton and maintaining a Manchester bitter brewed in Manchester. I reached out to Marble’s Head of Production Joseph Ince to discuss what makes Manchester bitter a distinct style.

“It has a distinct appearance and flavor to other notable bitters, its paleness . . . higher bitterness and hop notes really do set it apart. Other bitters may have some of these characteristics, but not all of them,” he explained.

Manchester bitter as a style is set apart with its straw color in contrast to the amber/copper of the BJCP bitters. As a style, it has an assertive bitterness above what you’d expect of a bitter and lacks the biscuity character of its darker cousins, instead relying more heavily on hop aroma. For Marble’s Manchester Bitter, they use a restrained amount of American hops to add a subtle fruitiness.

Of course, the most distinct element of a Manchester bitter is its assertive, foamy head. This was the “cream” referred to in the marketing of Boddingtons and the infamous joke was asking a drinker if he needed “a flake with that,” a reference to English soft-serve ice cream often being served with a flakey chocolate log. 

If it is so different from a southern bitter, I asked Ince if Manchester bitter could really be a pale or golden ale by another name?

“I’d say the ABV and paleness keep it from being a true golden ale, and while hoppy and bitter, it is by no way hopped the way modern pales are.”

I can tell the beer means a lot to Ince and to Marble, but he humbly told me Marble “is just happy to do our bit to give a nod to a little bit of Manchester culture.” He was kind enough to share a clone recipe with BYO (found below) so you can all enjoy a bit of Manchester culture yourselves. 

Yorkshire Bitter

Yorkshire Bitter is in my blood. There are plenty of classic examples, from Timothy Taylor’s Boltmaker and Ward’s Best Bitter, but by far the most successful was Tetley’s.  I grew up in a pub in West Yorkshire owned by Tetley’s Brewery. In the 1990s the U.K. government enacted a series of laws, called the “Beer Orders,” that forced the breweries to sell off a large number of their pubs. Overnight we were no longer a Tetley’s pub and no longer able to sell Tetley’s Bitter.

The local drinkers abandoned the pub in droves, still craving proper Yorkshire bitter, and so my parents got new jobs and I moved out of the first home I can remember. So I can assure you that Yorkshire beer lovers definitely see Yorkshire bitter as its own style. 

Tetley’s suffered a very similar fate to Boddingtons. Getting bought out by Carlsberg in 1998, production was moved out of Yorkshire in 2011. The U.K. limited company was originally Carlsberg-Tetley. With an obvious focus being placed on making lager, it later changed to Carlsberg UK. In the 1990s, Tetley’s was the second best-selling ale in the U.K. behind only John Smith’s. By 2023 it wasn’t even in the top ten.3 

So again, modern Yorkshire microbreweries have stepped into the fold to try to put Yorkshire bitter back into the consciousness of drinkers. I reached out to one such brewery, Turning Point Brew Co., and talked to their Head of Sales Josh Waldock about what defines a Yorkshire bitter  and makes it distinct. 

“The people of Yorkshire definitely see Yorkshire bitter as its own thing,” Josh said. “Yorkshire bitter is deep amber/chestnut colored and tends to taste more nutty, sweet, and bready . . . with a light, floral aroma and lower bitterness. There tends to be a more complex malt base, but a more restrained use of hops leading to the beers being richer, but not as sharp and clean as alternative bitters.”  

This is almost the exact opposite of the Manchester bitter — a restrained bitterness, a more approachable beer with a focus on malt character and displaying the darker color profile you’d more typically associate with a bitter. 

There are also historical process and serving differences. “The Yorkshire Square brew kits (systems) would have probably been a major factor . . . or the use of a tight sparkler for a denser, creamier head on the beer,” Josh explained. 

The Yorkshire square fermentation system is a split-vessel system where wort is periodically pumped upward and over the yeast at the top of the brew to keep the yeast recirculated in the wort. It leads to a lower final gravity and more carbonation, owing to the increased amount of yeast in the beer when it is racked into cask. While once popular, there are few breweries who still use the Yorkshire square system. A sparkler is a small nozzle fitted onto a cask dispense that aerates the beer as it is served, which leads to a thick, creamy head. Sparklers are traditionally more common in the north of England compared to the south. Both of these processes mean traditionally Yorkshire bitter should, like Manchester bitter, have a much more assertive head and higher carbonation than would be expected for a bitter brewed elsewhere in the U.K.

Turning Point also shared a clone recipe of their Yorkshire-style bitter, found below.

1 Pattinson, R. (2/5/2024) “Boddington Bitter 1945 – 1970,” Shut Up About Barclay Perkins.

2 Oxford, E. (1993) Cream-headed Smoothie Conquers South, The Independent.

3 (2023) “The top cask brands to stock,” The Morning Advertiser. 

Marble Beers’ Manchester Bitter clone

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.042  FG = 1.011
IBU = 42  SRM = 5  ABV = 4.2%

You can see the focus on the distinctive color with the use of the extra pale malt, giving wiggle room to build some malt flavor with crystal and Munich malts. The ABV is the mid-range of a best bitter, but just tips over the maximum IBUs. What you’re left with is a light and refreshing but incredibly bitter beer. 

4.1 lbs. (1.9 kg) Simpsons extra pale malt
4.1 lbs. (1.9 kg) Simpsons pale malt
5.3 oz. (150 g) crystal malt (10 °L)
2.6 oz. (74 g) Munich malt 
2.3 oz. (65 g) crystal malt (40 °L)
0.7 oz. (20 g) melanoidin malt
12.4 AAU CTZ hops (60 min.) (0.8 oz./23 g at 15.5% alpha acids) 
0.8 oz. (23 g) Ekuanot® hops (0 min.) 
1 oz. (28 g) Comet hops (0 min.)
LalBrew Nottingham or White Labs WLP039 (East Midlands) yeast
¾ cup corn sugar (if priming) 

Step By Step 
Mash your grains at 149 °F (65 °C) for 60 minutes and confirm the saccharification step is complete with an iodine test before proceeding to the lauter steps. Sparge with enough water at 167 °F (75 °C) to collect 6.5 gallons (24.6 L) in the brew kettle.

Boil for a total of 60 minutes, adding the CTZ hops at the start of the boil. At the end of the boil, add Ekuanot® and Comet hops and immediately cool wort down to 65 °F (18 °C). Transfer to your fermenter, aerate if using liquid yeast, and pitch yeast. Ferment at this temperature. 

This kind of classic British style would normally be served on cask or bottled conditioned. Keg if you must, but if you bottle condition then you’ll get the best out of this beer. Serve at cellar temperature.

Extract plus grains version: Replace the extra pale, pale, and Munich malts with 4.5 lbs. (2 kg) Muntons extra light dried malt extract and increase the melanoidin malt to 1.5 oz. (43 g). Place the crushed grains in a muslin bag and submerge in 4 gallons (15 L) as it heats up to 170 °F (77 °C). When that temperature is achieved, remove grain bag, allowing to drip into the kettle. Top kettle off to 6.5 gallons (24.6 L). With the heat turned off, stir in the malt extract. Bring wort to a boil and follow the remainder of the all-grain recipe.

Turning Point Brew Co.’s Nightcall clone

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.041  FG = 1.010
IBU = 23  SRM =  8  ABV = 4%

The bitterness of this Yorkshire bitter is below the minimum for a best bitter under the BJCP Style Guide. Bitterness is still present with the lower ABV beer, but the star of the show is the malt character. A healthy addition of melanoidin malt gives the beer the classic biscuit flavor Yorkshire bitters are known for, with more caramel character being added with the brown and crystal malts. The late addition of the East Kent Golding hops add floral notes with a hint of fruit character from the Archer addition. As my Grandad would have said: “A proper pint.”

6.1 lbs. (2.8 kg) Maris Otter pale malt
13 oz. (370 g) melanoidin malt
9 oz. (255 g) wheat malt
9 oz. (255 g) amber malt
4.5 oz. (128 g) brown malt
4.5 oz. (128 g) crystal malt (40 °L)
4.5 AAU East Kent Golding hops (60 min.) (0.9 oz./26 g at 5% alpha acids)
5 AAU East Kent Golding hops (10 min.) (1 oz./28 g at 5% alpha acids)
1 oz. (28 g) Archer hops (0 min.) 
SafAle S-04 English Ale Yeast 
¾ cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step By Step 
Mash your grains at 149 °F (65 °C) for 60 minutes and confirm the saccharification step is complete with an iodine test before proceeding to the lauter steps. Sparge with enough water at 167 °F (75 °C) to collect 6.5 gallons (24.6 L) in the brew kettle.

Boil for a total of 60 minutes, adding the hops as indicated. If you cannot get a hold of Archer hops, Cascade can be used as a substitute. At the end of the boil, cool wort down to 65 °F (18 °C). Transfer to your fermenter, aerate if using liquid yeast, and pitch yeast. Ferment at this temperature. 

This kind of classic British style would normally be served on cask or bottled conditioned. Keg if you must, but if you bottle condition then you’ll get the best out of this beer. Serve at cellar temperature.

Partial mash version: Reduce the Maris Otter pale malt to 1.2 lbs. (0.54 kg) and add 3.3 lbs. (1.5 kg) Maris Otter liquid malt extract. Heat 1.5 gallons (5.6 L) of water to 157 °F (69 °C). Add all of the crushed grains in a steeping bag, leaving plenty of room after tying it off. The goal is to achieve a mash temperature of 149 °F (65 °C). Mash for 60 minutes or until converted. Remove the grain bag and rinse it with 1 gallon (3.8 L) of water at 170 °F (77 °C). Top up the kettle to 6.5 gallons (24.5 L). 

Bring wort to a boil. When boil is achieved, take the kettle off the flame and slowly add the malt extract while stirring. Return to heat source and boil for 60 minutes. Follow the remainder of the all-grain recipe.

Issue: July-August 2024