NOTE: In the 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines, Ordinary Bitter is now Style 11A in Category 11 British Bitter
Ordinary bitter is a name which is synonymous with pale ale in Britain. In fact, a Premium or Ordinary Bitter is in the style category called English Pale Ale by the BJCP.
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.
Ordinary bitter can have a large range of strengths, flavor and color. The beers can be anywhere from a light golden to a dark amber with alcohol percentages ranging from 3% to upwards of 7% ABV.
If this isn't confusing enough, there is no standard naming convention for the English pale ales either. They have several diffuse names for the various strengths of pale ale, including best bitter, special bitter, extra special bitter, and premium bitter.
In general, ordinary bitters have strengths up to about 4.1% ABV. This will include most of the English beers that are labeled as IPA.
Even though they bear the name IPA, the aren't close to the level of bitterness as IPAs in America. Lower gravity session IPAs have been brewed in England since the early part of the 20th century and is the most popular strength of bitter sold in pubs.
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.
References: Information for this article was adapted from the Wikipedia page entitled Bitter (beer), the 2008 BJCP style guidelines, and Brewing Classic Styles, 80 Winning Recipes Anyone Can Brew, by Jamil Zainasheff and John J. Palmer.
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