How To Brew Best Bitter Beer

by Steve Thanos | Updated: September 4, 2020

Best Bitter is in the middle of the pack when it comes to British Bitter beers; tipping the scales in the high 3 to mid 4%. Bitter is a broad term that is applied to a very well-hopped pale ale. Usually these English bitters range from 3.5% to 7% in abv.

Ordinary Bitter is the lowest in abv and Extra Special Bitter being the highest. British brewers have several names for variations in beer strength.

There really is no agreed upon difference between ordinary and best other than strength of the beer itself. Of course hop levels will vary within each sub group.

A Long History of Beer in Britain

Britain has always had an interest in beer. In 43 AD the Romans conquered most of Britain. By around 100 AD, historical accounts from Vindolanda, a Roman fort in modern Northumbria, alludes to Atrectus the brewer, the first named brewer in British history.

By 500 AD, the Angles and Saxons arrived in Britain to conquer and settle. Their social life revolved around beer halls and ale houses.

Women in Beer

Brewing was usually done by females, using their domestic tools to boil, mash, and ferment among their other domestic tasks throughout their busy days. Ale was drunk for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as many people thought drinking water was dangerous.

Hops

Prior to brewing beer, many in Britain were brewing gruit. This gruit was brewed with different herbs, depending on what was locally available. At no point were hops ever banned in England.

English brewers were finally able to find local supply of hops that were grown in Kent. Hops were often viewed as suspicious. Also, they were used to avoid taxes on spices.

In 1540 AD, brewers supplied Henry VIII and his royal household beer. At Hampton Court, his residence, 600,000 gallons of ale and beer were consumed a year; that’s 13,000 pints a day. The lowest officer of a household received four pints every evening and Dukes received two gallons a day.

Style Profile for Best Bitter

Appearance

Pale amber to medium copper color. Brilliant to good clarity. Low to moderate white to off-white head. Low carbonation results in little head retention.

Aroma

Low to moderate malt aroma. Low to medium-low caramel aroma. Bready, biscuit, or light toast complexity is very common with the style. Mild to moderate fruitiness. Hop aroma can range from moderate to none at all. The hop aroma that may arise will be floral, earthy, resiny, and or fruity character. Usually no diacetyl is detected, but a low amount is allowed.

Mouthfeel

Medium-light to medium body. Low carbonation.

Taste

Medium to moderately high bitterness. Moderately low to moderately high fruity esters.

Moderate to low hop flavor, usually earthy, resiny, fruity, and/or floral. Low to medium maltiness with a very dry finish. The malt profile is bready, biscuity, or lighty toasty. Low to moderate caramel or toffee flavors may exist.

Food Pairing

The toasty, lightly sweet caramel notes pair well with an English Cheddar. Traditionally speaking, a classic Fish and Chips pairs wonderfully with the batter of the fish. The sweet caramel characteristics of the beer will add a nice contrast to the malt vinegar usually used in this dish. Roasted chicken or duck will also pair nicely with a nice Bitter.

Tips for Brewing your own Best Bitter

Grain

Usually a good Best Bitter starts and ends with a good British pale malt. In this case Maris Otter as your base malt is your best choice. Maris Otter lends itself to the biscuit flavor that you should be after with this beer.

After your base malt, a British crystal malt should be also considered. Using a malt such as Pale Chocolate at a very low amount, such as Martin did will carry some decent color for your beer. Just remember to be light-handed with your Pale Chocolate here.

Hops

When considering the hops, you need to forget the American notion of a “bitter beer.” 30-35 IBU for this beer should be plenty. Using English hops would only be proper. Hops such as Fuggle, East Kent Golding is what you should consider.

Yeast

Researching your yeast will really pay off in the end when it comes to brewing your own Bitter. Some British yeast strains can be neutral and others can be more estery, others ferment dryer, and some leave some residual sweetness. Some yeast to consider include:

Wyeast 1275 Thames Valley Ale

Wyeast 1318 London Ale III

White Labs Burton Ale ALP023

Best Bitter By the Numbers

  • Color Range: 8 – 16 SRM
  • Original Gravity: 1.040 – 1.048 OG
  • Final Gravity: 1.008 – 1.012 FG
  • IBU Range: 25 – 40
  • ABV Range: 3.8 – 4.6%

Martin Keen’s Best Bitter Homebrew Recipe

Grain

52% 4 lbs Maris Otter

26% 6 oz Caramel/Crystal Malt – 80L

15% 2 oz Pale Chocolate

Hops

0.75 oz Fuggle Pellets – Boil 60.0 min

0.50 oz East Kent Pellets – Boil 10.0 min

Yeast

1.0 pkg London Ale III WYeast #1318

Mash at 152°F (66°C) for 60 mins

Boil for 60 mins

Growing up in England as a kid, I was no stranger to the occasional visit to a British pub. And I seen, got to learn that my dad’s favorite beer was Ringwood Best Bitter. And when I got old enough to drink myself, well, I gave it a try and, Oh my goodness, I did not enjoy it. I much preferred the yellow fizzy European lagers, like Stella Artois, but tastes change over time. And in the end, I came around to agreeing with my dad about this beer.

So today I am going to brew a British Best Bitter. And while I’m doing that, I’m going to show you some tips that I’ve learned in using this claw hammer supply controller.

Hi, I’m Martin Keen. I am taking the Homebrew challenge to brew 99 beers in 99 weeks. And today, dad, I’m happy to tell you I’m brewing a Best Bitter. So let’s get straight into the ingredients.

The interesting thing about these British bitters that I’m doing is we have ordinary bitter, best bitter, and then strong bitter. They actually are all the same beer just with different strengths. So I could just take my ordinary better recipe, scale it up a bit and I’d have a best bitter. There would be a little boring though. So I am going to change things up a bit.

How To Brew Best Bitter Beer 6

Now, like the ordinary bitter, I’m going to brew a half size batch. So I’m going to brew about two and a half gallons of beer here. That means that the recipe ingredients that I’m going to tell you about, I’ll tell you again, in percentages rather than an actual weights.

So you can scale this up to whatever amount or whatever volume you’re brewing.

Now, ultimately this beer, we want to get to 1.046 by the end of brew day. And we’re going to get that with the following mixture of ingredients. For my base malt, I have Maris Otter, and this is going to make up 89% of my total grist. Then there are these specialty malts to add. Now in here, 8% of Crystal 80 is going to be my next specialty malt. And then my final specialty malt. It’s a little controversial, it’s within the style guidelines, but it’s not something you would always see in the best better recipe.

And that is 3% of pale chocolate malt. Why pale chocolate malts? Well, that’s what Ringwood Best uses. And if it’s good enough for them….

How To Brew Best Bitter Beer 4

I’ve been brewing on my claw hammer supply system now for a few brews and I’m starting to get the hang of it. And I’ve had fantastic support from claw hammer supply, particularly Emmett’s. Thank you so much for answering all my questions.

Um, now what I wanted to do in this video was talk a little bit about the controller for that system. And some of the tips that I have learned now, claw hammer supply do provide their own tips video for using the controller. I will link to that, but these are three things that I’ve discovered that are helping me with my brew.

Now also tune is one of those pro settings that I really, really like about this system. So think about how these electric systems heat up water. There’s an electrical element there, and that cycles on and off sufficiently to build up to a certain mash temperature. Now the amount of power that it needs to get the water from one mash temperature to another depends very much upon the volume of water. So to heat up and maintain, say it’s seven gallons of water at 152 Fahrenheit is going to need a different amount of power than to maintain, say four gallons of water at that same 152 Fahrenheit.

And that’s what auto tune does. So to do that, first of all, so we’re gonna hold down these set button for three seconds and then press it again to get to Oop, I’m going to press a M to select that.

Now I’m going to move into the a T mode for auto tune, and then I’m going to hold and press down set. So now we are in auto tune mode and we’re just going to leave it here on auto tune mode until that stops flashing 80. And at that point it will have calibrated.

And you can just notice here, by the way, that already, although I’d set the mash temperature to 150, it had already shot overshot to 155 Fahrenheit. And that’s again, because right now the system is calibrated to work with seven gallons of water. And I only want to work with about four and a half gallons.

Auto tune is complete. You can see now that when this heating element goes on, it’s really flickering between one 49.9 and one 50.

Now this next tip, it’s a little bit silly, but my goodness, it just saves a little bit of time and frustration. So I want to change this now to say 150 to Fahrenheit because that’s the temperature I’m mashing at. What I was doing was like, press the down arrow to say, I want to change temperature. And then I would start to hold up and wait for it to get to whatever temperature I wanted. That’s fine if you’re only going a few degrees, but if we’re going from say 150 to mashing out at 170, it’s sort of holding down and pressing the button.

What I hadn’t realized is that when you press this down or you get this little flashing cursor here, which you can move across and then this will adjust this number here. So I focus now, it’s saying 152, I press set. So I actually only needed to press three buttons there to get it to 152, instead of holding it down easy.

When you know how now the last thing I wanted to just show you was related to temperature calibration. When I first got this system, I calibrated the temperature by getting this up to boiling point and then seeing what my thermometer setting read as, and then made a calibration adjustment on, on the controller here.

What I’m going to do now is actually calibrate based on mash temperature rather than on boil temperature, because I want my thermometer to be giving me the right reading at mash time. Most of all I know when it’s boiling, I don’t need it to tell me that that my thermometer is showing closer to 148.

So this is actually under reporting a little bit. Let’s say problem? I can adjust that. So to do that, I hold down set, press the AAM button. I know this set value. I’m going to raise by two, so and move the cursor across here raised by two hold down set. You’ll see if the temperature is male raise to 148, and that mirrors the actual temperature that I’m seeing here.

How To Brew Best Bitter Beer 3

With the grains added. I am going to start recircullating, and I’m going to be mashing at 152 Fahrenheit looking to get to a preboil gravity of about 1.031.

Best bitter actually can be quite a hoppy beer. It’s really a Pale Ale in American terms. So the way that I am going to make this beer is I’m going to aim for 35 IBU.

Um, now I’m going to do that. Using, first of all, my bittering hop, this is UK fuggle hops, and they are going in at 60 minutes. And I’m going to get about 27 IBU from that, with the volume that I’m brewing, that equates to three quarters of an ounce, then at 10 minutes from the end. I’m going to add East Kent Golding hops, um, Beersmith is showing me, this will give me eight IBUs, but I’m adding them in purely for their aroma and flavor characteristics.

And for my batch size, that means, 1/2 ounce.

Once again, a chilling with such a small amount of wort is a joy I’m already down to my target temperature, which is 68 Fahrenheit that took about five minutes.

So next thing to do is to get this beer into the fermentor and add the yeast. I am using my same yeast as I used for the ordinary Bitter, which is London Ale yeast III. The beer has come out on the money at 1.046.

I’m fermenting it in here at a temperature of 68 Fahrenheit. Leave it there for a couple of weeks and give it a taste.

How To Brew Best Bitter Beer 5

We’re back. And we promise no more fake British accents this time. We’ll speak normally this time, just, just the real British accent. So we have a, another, um, very popular beer style here in best bitter, a bit of a family favorite this one. So I’d be interested to get your take on how this differs from just plain ordinary bitter.

So let’s take a look at this beer. This came out by the way at 4.5%. So it is a little bit stronger than the ordinary bitter. Uh, any difference in color that you notice is this one darker, just a tad, more darker and more Brown and got more Amber to it, I guess in the other one. Yeah, it is a very sort of coppery color, a little darker than the other one.

Let’s see if we get any difference on the nose. Well, I remember saying that last one, like had a, like a smorgasbord of smells to it. Like you can actually pick one out, but this one smells a lot more like malty to me, it smells so British. It smells like, like you’ve gone into the English pub and you know, that sort of Beery smell you get when you walk in. Yeah. It’s just, this, this reminds me of football on at the pub. Right.

Okay. Let’s go for the taste.

It tastes very English. Yeah. Yeah. It tastes a lot more English than the other one. Yeah. So the, the difference that I noticed, um, I think with this beer over the ordinary bitter is I added a bit of darker and malt to it, the Pell chocolate malt, which you see reflected in the color. It’s only a very small amount, but I think it really comes through. Yeah, I can taste it. It’s very subtle, but it’s definitely there. It’s quite heavy. I feel though. Like it’s kind of a heavier, definitely it definitely heavier than the ordinary better.

Yeah. But I think still very dangerously drinkable. It’s pretty tasty. I’m afraid we couldn’t resist. So um, Lauren have a Johnny Good day and down the hatchet!

I am the former President of my homebrew club, Plainfield Ale and Lager Enthusiasts (PALE) in the western suburbs of Chicago, IL. I brew on my BIAB system with my incredibly patient and understanding wife, adorable 9 year old daughter, and 12 year old brew dog.