English Best Bitter

In the current (2015) BJCP Style Guidelines, Best Bitter is Style 11B in Category 11 British Bitter From the BJCP Guidelines: "The family of British bitters grew out of English pale ales as a draught product in the late 1800s. The use of crystal malts in bitters became more widespread after WWI. Traditionally served very fresh under no pressure (gravity or hand pump only) at cellar temperatures (i.e., “real ale”). Most bottled or kegged versions of UK-produced bitters are often higher-alcohol and more highly carbonated versions of cask products produced for export, and have a different character and balance than their draught counterparts in Britain (often being sweeter and less hoppy than the cask versions). These guidelines reflect the “real ale” version of the style, not the export formulations of commercial products.

Several regional variations of bitter exist, ranging from darker, sweeter versions served with nearly no head to brighter, hoppier, paler versions with large foam stands, and everything in between.

Judges should not over-emphasize the caramel component of these styles. Exported bitters can be oxidized, which increases caramel-like flavors (as well as more negative flavors). Do not assume that oxidation-derived flavors are traditional or required for the style."

Best Bitter Description

Best BitterBest Bitter

Best Bitter (other names include Special Bitter and Premium Bitter) is a name given to pale ales in England which are one step up on the scale of flavor (including bitterness) and alcohol from the session beers called Ordinary Bitters. The terms are sometimes ambiguous, and the names often get used in the wrong (according to the BJCP) category. For instance, in the Wikipedia article entitled "Bitter (beer)", the term "Premium" is applied to the Extra Special or Strong Bitter category. If things weren't confusing enough with two or three terms for each category. Since we are homebrewers and not ordering a beer in an English pub, we will concentrate on the BJCP style guidelines and their break-downs of the different styles into categories and sub-categories. Thus we come to the Special, Best, or Premium Bitter style category of the English Pale Ale style.

Pale ale was originally a term coined for beers made from the lighter colored malt which was dried with coke, rather than wood coals. This made it possible for malts of a much lighter color and without the tell-tale smoked flavor than was previously possible. Coke was first used to roast malt as early as 1642, but not until 1703 was the term pale ale used to describe this malt. Around the year 1830, the expression bitter and pale ale were more or less synonymous in England. Brewers tended to call their beers pale ale even though the customers in the pubs would ask for a bitter, referring to the same beer. It is believed that the term bitter was used to contrast the pale ales, which were well hopped, from the other popular beers of the times, porter and mild. Bottled beer in England was still labeled as pale ale but brewers began identifying their beers which were cask conditioned as bitter. One exception were the beers from Burton on Trent, which customers referred to to as pale ale, no matter how it was dispensed.

According to Michael Jackson's Beerhunter site, a Best Bitter (or Special Bitter) is a pale ale with an alcohol content of between 4.4 - 4.5% ABV. In the BJCP guidelines, the characteristics of the Ordinary Bitter and the Best or Special Bitter are almost exactly the same.

Many best bitters are medium gold to medium copper, dry, well-bittered beers with some high or moderate hop flavor and fruity ester notes from the yeast.  These beers have some malt aroma, often with caramel notes, and a low or moderate white to off-white head. Hop aroma can range from moderate to none.  Very low levels of diacetyl are acceptable.

Brewing Tips for English Best Bitters:
Several factors are important when brewing this beer and it holds true for all the English pale ales. Number one is to use a yeast that does not attenuate completely and that will produce the fruity esters typical in this style of beer. About 70% is a good target attenuation to shoot for when looking for your yeast. Another important factor is the hopping. Although these beers can be somewhat bitter, they should not be as hoppy as American versions. The hops used should be of the English variety such as Fuggles or East Kent Goldings. These hops will provide the necessary bitterness and flavor while still maintaining the expected English characteristics.  Make sure to keep the alcohol in the 1.040-1.048 range since these are considered session beers.

References: Information for this article was adapted from the Wikipedia page entitled Bitter (beer), Michael Jackson's Beerhunter website, the 2008 and 2015 BJCP style guidelines, and Brewing Classic Styles, 80 Winning Recipes Anyone Can Brew, by Jamil Zainasheff and John J. Palmer.

Recommended Articles
Ordinary Bitter
Extra Special Bitter (ESB)
Porter Styles Page
Dry Stouts


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