NOTE: In the 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines, English Pale Ale has been reclassified as Category 11 British Bitter which 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.
BJCP 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.
British Bitters should display earthy herbal English-variety hop character, but this character may be the result of the skillful use of other varieties of hops by the brewer. These beers have medium to high hop bitterness, flavor and aroma which originally was helped by the water in some of the brewing towns. One city, which has become synonymous with this beer is Burton-on-Trent. The water there is high in gypsum, which precipitates even the finest sediments to produce a very pale color beer. The balance is toward the sulfate concentrations which enhances the hop bitterness.
All beers in this style are bitters. The word "bitter" is used in Britain to describe their pale ales. The bitter has been a big part of the British diet and culture for over 150 years. Pale Ales were made in Britain as early as 1703, but throughout the 18th and up to the early part of the 19th century, the dark, heavy Porter style of beer was the prominent beer in Britain.
Around 1784, the Saccharometer was invented. It was a device which could measure the sugar levels in liquids. It allowed brewers to finally calculate the alcohol content of their beers. What they found was that the pale malts could make beers higher in alcohol than the brown malts. So, thus began the movement toward the English Bitters. As lagers swept the continent of Europe, the English stayed with their bitter as their beer of choice. Lagers did make some inpact on Scotland where the brewing was more in the German style.
The three styles in this category (in the 2008 BJCP Guidelines) were:
Some distinguish the Pale Ale from the Bitter, saying it is a beer with more esters and with a variable malt to hop balance. They also contend that the English Pale Ale's color, carbonation and head retention are comparable to, but slightly higher than the Bitter. This should be an interesting category to learn since it has always confused me with all the special, best, premium, extra special, standard, and ordinary designations.
References: This page was adapted from the BJCP style guideleines for 2008 and 2015, and BeerExpert.com.uk/BitterBeer.
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