Top 5 English / Ordinary Bitter

A simple beer, and one very suitable for quaffing during the dog days of summer, is English, or Ordinary Bitter. Often times underappreciated and lost in the shuffle with stronger, more aggressive beers, whenever I walk into a bar and see one on draft, or even better, on cask, a large smile crosses my face and I know it’s going to be a good night.

History of English Bitter

English Bitter started out as a draft ale served fresh under no pressure (i.e. only on cask) at cellar temperatures. The intention was to provide a lower-strength draft alternative to English Pale Ale, a beer that was made from malt dried from coke. The term “Pale Ale” was first used in 1703, but “Bitter” became synonymous with it by 1830, and eventually the pub goers referred to Bitter as being a less hoppy, subdued beer than country Pale Ales, Porters, and Milds. Around the start of the 20th century, once brewers understood how to Burtonize their water, they were able to successfully brew pale ales where they employed the use of crystal malts to add a fullness and roundness of palate. Thank God for the Brits.

English Bitter Characteristics

The best examples of Bitter will have some malt aroma, many times having a caramel quality to them. Look for a mild to moderate fruitiness with some hops that will vary from moderate to none. You may detect a bit of diacetyl as well. They’ll have the color of a light yellow to light copper, with good clarity and a low to moderate off-white head. If you’re lucky to get one on cask, there may be very little head due to low carbonation. A medium to high bitterness will immediately be prevalent in this style, with low to high fruity esters and a moderate to low hop flavor – UK varieties will have a earthy, resiny and floral quality, but US varietals can be employed as well. There will be a low to medium maltiness, with some caramel notes and a dry finish. The balance of the beer will be bitter, but not overpowering the malt, hops, and esters. An easy drinking beer due to the light to medium-light body, Bitter will have low carbonation (especially on draft), but some bottled versions will contain a bit more.

Goose Island Honker's Ale

English Bitter Food Pairings

An excellent choice to pair with a variety of foods, English Bitter, like English Pale Ale, finds a perfect partner with fish and chips. Delicate fish of any kind will be happy next to a pint of bitter, since a great deal of the British malt varietals are grown close to the ocean. The sweetness of the malt will line right up to the sweetness of any kind of shellfish you can find, amplifying the flavors as opposed to dominating them. Roasted chicken or pork is also a great choice to have with bitter, along with grilled meats, as long as they’re not too spicy. The char and caramelization on the meat will sit perfectly with the caramel flavors in the beer. Another good choice is Thai food, as long as it’s not overwhelmingly hot. If you want to reach for the cheese, the winners here are the milder English cheeses such as Lancashire or Leicester. And for dessert, try English Bitter with some Oatmeal cookies. Seriously.

The main reason English Bitter is one of my favorite styles to session, any time of the year, is the low alcohol and the ridiculous level of drinkability. Low gravity, low alcohol, and low carbonation makes this beer your best friend when you’re looking for a good 4-5 hour stint at the bar, or at a backyard party. Grab a sixer of any of these next time you head out to a gathering in the upcoming weeks. Cheers!

Goose Island Honkers Ale

Brooklyn Bitter

Sierra Nevada Best Bitter

Fuller’s Mr. Harry

Rogue Younger’s Special Bitter



  • Hannah August 12, 2010 @ 9:20am

    Deron – I love Honker’s Ale and had the pleasure of having it on draft both in Chicago at the brewpub, and here just this week! I hope to find it on cask one of these days, too.

  • M August 12, 2010 @ 10:53am

    Next time i will have to have a taste of the Honker’s Ale when I’m at the pub with Hannah.

  • Peter August 12, 2010 @ 11:00am

    I have keg of Goose Island Honker on tap at home, and it is the perfect summer session beer. It is also the perfect fall, winter and spring session beer. Ditto to everything Deron says in his post about how well bitters pair with food. I especially like Honker with local Buffalo summertime favorite Chiavettas marinated grilled chicken.

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