Tim Hampson's Beer Blog

The quest for the perfect beer

Don’t be bitter it is taste that counts

with 2 comments

So what colour should a best bitter beer  be? I was recently a judge at the Great British Beer Festival’s Champion Beer of Britain and sat on the Best Bitters panel. In the beer style guidelines we were given “best bitters” were described as being “typically brown, tawny, copper, or amber but can be paler”. Without exception every one of the beers was a golden yellow hue. So were they truly best bitters and are brown and tawny ales a throwback to the early days of industrialised brewing ? Are the golden ales a creation of Britain’s burgeoning craft brewing movement?And should the definition be changed to “typically golden but can be darker and even brown and tawny”.

On reflection, it’s taste that counts – not the colour. And anyway when did the term bitter only become associated with copper or bronze coloured brews? We have been using the term bitter to describe pale ales since the early 19th century. The style is broad and includes a great, range of colours, tastes and strengths. It was the Victorians who popularised these paler beers. In 1899, one of the early, great beer writers Alfred Barnard penned the following description for a popular West Country beer – “a bright sparkling beverage of a rich golden colour and possesses a nice delicate hop flavour”. Another contemporary writer describes a bitter as being “straw coloured”. The term bitter came into common usage, in an era, before the use of pump clips with a beer’s name on. Brewers called the beer “pale”, but ordinary folk used the term “bitter”. There was nothing on the bar to tell the customer they should be asking for pale ale, and so they requested a “bitter” to show they didn’t want the sweeter, less hopped mild.

In the 1800s, paler malts were first used not to provide colour to beer, but because they were easier to ferment and therefore more efficient and cheaper than the brown malts then used for making porter. A change in the tax laws in the 1840s, bought about the widespread use of glassware in pubs. Almost at a stroke, beer had to do much more than taste good it had to look good too. The era of golden beers had begun.

But when sitting in a pub we should do more than drink with our eyes. In the final swallow, it is taste that really matters. There are too many golden bitters that are dull and bland – mimicking tasteless yellow British style lagers. Sadly, these will win few converts to the joys of flavoursome beer.


Written by timhampson

August 7, 2010 at 6:56 am

2 Responses

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  1. It’s true that there are dull and bland golden beers, but there are also plenty of boring brown bitters, underhopped and tasting mostly of toffee. These latter are, I think, the reason that so many drinkers choose a paler beer instead in the hope that it’ll be a bit hoppier.


    August 10, 2010 at 10:05 pm

    • You make a good point. Perhaps we make too much of colour – it is blandness that is the real issue.


      August 11, 2010 at 5:53 am

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