Pale ales were not possible before the invention of coke in 1669. Prior to this date wood and straw had been used to dry green malt but this was excessively smoky and this influenced the flavour and colour of the brew. Coke was cleaner, easier to control but much more expensive. Initially it was used for stronger beer that could be laid down for a year or more. Most of this beer was destined for the military in India. By the early 19th century brewers in Burton-on-Trent began making pale ales. Burton water is rich in calcium sulphate. This naturally occurring chemical had a significant effect on the brewing process. Burton-on-Trent was able to produce ales which were clear and bright with a full hoppy aroma. This combined with the building of commercial railways enabled Burton to compete directly with the stouts and porters produced in London. Stout and Porter was generally more alcoholic and less thirst quenching than mild and the paler bitters. Mild and Bitter ales are called running ales because they have a short shelf life compared to stout or porter but they are also less alcoholic, more ‘session’ type beers. By the end of the 19th century many brewers were making bitters and milds with IPA fading away. Porter had given way to Mild. Mild was the most popular pub ale at this time.
After World War II Bitter took off as pub-goers began to reject Mild Ale. Over the previous 50 years Mild had gradually become darker. It also became a dumping ground for spoilt beer both at the brewery and also in the pub, so called ‘slops’ would be returned to the barrel. Bitter had long had a reputation for being a premium quality product and just after the War quality was more important than price. Brewers gradually phased out their Mild in favour of Bitters.
Bitter is usually bronze or copper coloured. Generally bitter will be between 3.4-3.9% ABV. Best Bitter is 4% ABV and Extra or Special Strong Bitter will be in excess of 5% e.g. Fuller’s ESB or Green King Abbot.
When drinking Bitter Ale look for peppery and grassy hoppy character, powerful bitterness, tangy fruit and juice with a nutty malt. Malt and fruit should be the dominant taste in Best Bitters and Strong Bitters but hops add aroma and bitterness which is crucial to the style.
Written by Sandie Taylor