Ordinary Bitter closes out our exploration of the BJCP category 11. While researching the style, I came across what Paul Jones of Cloudwater Brew Company in Manchester, England once said about English Bitter beers. I’m paraphrasing here and add my own spin to it.
There are some beers that you actually talk about, such as a great hoppy IPA or a complex Sour that mixes graininess and just the right amount of sourness that hits your jowls. Then there are beers that you just talk over.
It’s good, it tastes like beer. Instead of talking about the simplicity of the beer, let’s continue talking about the hassles of e-learning.
The beauty of the Ordinary Bitter is the drinkability of this beer. Being in the 3% abv ball park, it is easy to order four or five while sitting in a pub and still be able to conduct yourself like a well-adjusted person in society. This beer’s drinkability is both a blessing and a curse.
Brewing an Ordinary Bitter is not as easy as it seems. With such a low abv, the importance of quality grain, hops, yeast, and water is paramount with this style and other styles that do not hide behind excessive hops or adjuncts.
Cask Conditioned Beer
In England since the early 19th century, the term “bitter” has been used to describe pale ale. Customers in the pubs would ask for a bitter as a way to differentiate from mild ale. By the end of the 19th century, brewers began to use the term as well.
Traditionally Bitters were cask conditioned and either dispensed by gravity through a tap in a cask or by a beer engine. Pulling the beer at the right temperature is very important. Cellar temps of 55 °F (13 °C) is usually what will give you ability to pick up the interesting flavors and aromas of an Ordinary Bitter.
Style Profile for OrdinaryBitter
Pale amber to light copper color. Brilliant to good clarity. Low to moderate white to off-white head. Low carbonation results in little head retention.
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 medium-low to medium.
The hop aroma that may arise will be floral, earthy, resiny, and or fruity character. Usually no diacetyl is detected. Some examples of the style can have low sulfur and/or alcohol notes.
Medium-light to full body. Low carbonation, but some packages versions have moderate carbonation.
Mid- high bitterness. Moderately low to moderately high fruity esters.
Moderate 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.
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 Ordinary Bitter.
Tips for Brewing your own Ordinary Bitter
Usually a good Ordinary 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. Dark crystal will give the caramel and toasty/roasty tones while lighter crystal malt will give sweeter caramel character.
Keep the crystal malts in the 5-10% range. Also keep the lovibond from 10 to 150L. Going any darker will make the beer too heavy and sweet. Just another note on speciality malts. Biscuit, Victory and light colored Roast malt can all be considered. Special roast malts can be used to darken the beer up a lit. If using dark malts, keep it at a minimum.
When considering the hops, you need to forget the American notion of a “bitter beer.” 30-50 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.
Researching your yeast will really pay off in the end when it comes to brewing your own Extra Special 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
Beer purists will say an ESB is an ESB due to the Burton-upon-Trent water. Sulfates do enhance the bitter perception of the beer. Knowing your water profile can really help you to determine what water treatments you should add to your beer. No matter where you start, keep in mind the breakdown of Burton-upon-Trent water profile:
- Calcium — 295.0 ppm
- Chlorine — 25.0 ppm
- Sodium — 55.0 ppm
- Sulfate — 725.0 ppm
- Magnesium — 45.0 ppm
- Bicarbonate — 300.0 ppm
Ordinary Bitter By the Numbers
- Color Range: 8 – 14 SRM
- Original Gravity: 1.030 – 1.039 OG
- Final Gravity: 1.00 7- 1.011 FG
- IBU Range: 25 – 35
- ABV Range: 3.2 – 3.8%
Martin Keen’s Ordinary Bitter Recipe (2.5 gallon)
- 86% 3 lbs Maris Otter
- 7% 4 oz Caramel/Crystal Malt – 80L
- 7% 4 oz Victory Malt
- 0.50 oz East Kent Goldings EKG Pellets – Boil 60.0 min
- 0.50 oz Fuggle Pellets – Boil 20.0 min
1.0 pkg London Ale III WYeast #1318
Mash at 152°F (66°C) for 60 mins
Boil for 60 mins
Transcript: I’ve been brewing a lot of beer recently, five gallons a week is it’s a lot to find a home for. So I’m going to brew a half size batch, a 2.5 gallon batch, but I’m going to use my equipment that’s intended to do a full five gallon batch. And I’m going to test it out for brewing up a delicious English better.
Hi, I’m Martin Keen and I’m taking the Homebrew Challenge to brew 99 beers in 99 weeks. And today I get to return to my heritage as I brew my first British beer of the challenge.
British beers, things like ESB, porters, and today to kick things off ordinary bitter. Now I do have a, a bit of a confession to make I call this video “not so ordinary bitter,” but honestly this is very much a ordinary bitter. In fact, as far as the star guidelines go, this drink is the very definition of ordinary bitter, but if I’d given the beer its somewhat uninspiring, real name, who the heck is going to watch and share this video?
It would basically just be my mom. Hi mom, thanks for watching.
But here’s the rub when it comes to ordinary better, it is neither all that ordinary, nor at all bitter, bitter is the name for an English Amber malty beer style and ordinary refers to the strength. So in English bitter can be ordinary or best bitter or extra special that refers to how strong (ABV) it is. So this beer is the least strong of the English bitters that I’m going to brew.
So to address my too much beer problem, I’m going to brew a half size batch. Now, normally I brew five gallon batches. That’s enough to fill up a keg. I’m going to do a 2.5 gallon batch this time.
So half keg. Now, this means I am using much less grain, uh, kind of comically less. There’s very little here. Uh, this point I would usually run through the amount of pounds or kilos of grain that I’m using. Honestly, that’s probably not going to be a whole lot of use to you unless you’re also brewing a 2.5 gallon batch as well.
So I think it’s time to move from the absolute to the relative.
I’m going to talk in percentages, which is to say the percentage that a given grain makes up of the total grist. And in this case, the total grist is going to get to an OG an original gravity of 1.036. So if you want to replicate this beer, you would use the same percentage of grains in your grist as well. The actual amount that you need to use depends upon the amount that you’re making, but ultimately you want to get to a gravity of 1.036.
Alright, so what am I got? Well, my base malt is Maris Otter, and I have 86% of the grist as Maris Otter. And then for specialty malts I have 7% of Crystal 80 and 7% of victory malts.
I’m going to mash for an hour at 152 Fahrenheit to get to a preboil gravity of 1.024.
Now I’ve tried brewing smaller batches in systems that are intended to brew much larger batch sizes before. And it’s really not just as easy as splitting everything in half and being done.
Now, there are a few things to keep an eye on with a smaller batch in this system at the moment is pretty much useless. They just don’t actually touch the wort. You can see it’s just a little bit too high.
So I reached out to claw hammer supply to ask them about brewing small batches in their system. And they came back and said, actually, yeah, we brew small batches all the time. And they told me the one thing to consider is the heating element. The heating element needs to be submerged beneath the water the whole time. So I put the heating element in my kettle and put just enough water in to submerge it.
This is a single vessel, turn-key, all grain, digital brewing system. Integrated stainless steel grain and hop baskets can be removed after each process. This allows mashing, boiling, hop additions, etc. to be done in the same kettle. 304SS + 5500W too.
And it turned out I needed just a little under two gallons of water to keep that heating elements sub-merged. So that tells me the minimum amount of beer I can make. Now two gallons would really be pushing it. So I’m going to say two and a half gallons is the least amount of beer I can end up with in the system.
The other thing I was considering was the hop basket. Would the hops actually being in contact with the liquid, if the liquid level was so low? But I put the hot basket in and that reaches all the way to the bottom. So that’s completely submerged. The other thing was the grain basket. I want to make sure that when I put that grain basket in, there’ll be enough water to submerge all of my grain during the mash.
Now this beer is a low gravity beer, which makes it a great test for doing this because there’s so little grain in here.
So if I can brew a two and a half gallon batch of ordinary bitter with its really small grist, then I can really brew a two and a half gallon batch of pretty much anything. So I put in the recipe into Beer Smith and it told me that for a 2.5 gallon batch, I need four and a quarter gallons of water. That is what I added into my kettle. Then I put my grain basket into the kettle as well. And yeah, I could see that at four and a quarter gallons, the grain was going to be pretty well submerged. So that gave me the confidence then to go ahead and try this.
Don’t judge me. But yes, I did just use a pulley to hoist three and a half pounds of grain out of this thing. Hey, it’s convenient.
Now I mentioned that an English bitter is not really all that bitter at all. It’s much more malty, but that is not to say that this style is devoid of hop character. So here’s what I’m adding now. I’m not really sure how to address this because I’m not talking about measurements.
Now I’m talking about percentages, but look here goes, I’ve got here East Kent Golding hops. I’m going to add these in, as my bittering hop at 60 minutes, Beer Smith tells me I’m going to get 22 IBUs out of these, which is what I want. Um, and it’s so happens to get 22 IBU. I’m using half an ounce. Then at 20 minutes, I’m going to add my flavor and aroma hop, which is UK Fuggle hops. And for this, I’m putting this in at 20 minutes with an IBU expectation of about 12, which again, for me, turns out to be half an ounce. All right, let’s get these in.
So the boil went well. I started with a pre-boil volume of about four gallons. And I boiled down after an hour to about 2.8 gallons. They’re still safely over the heating element. And then I been chilling this and Oh my goodness, this thing chilled fast. So I got right the way down to, what am I at now? 66F. That’s actually slightly lower than I want to be. Um, but I got, um, in six minutes.! So having less volume to cool it a lot quicker.
Now for yeast I am using here a yeast from Wyeast it’s 13 18. This is London III and uh, unlike everything else, I actually didn’t do a half measure of this. This is just my usual one liter starter. So let’s get the wort into the fermenter, and add the yeast.
The beer is transferred here into this fermenter. Now there is a lot of empty Headspace in this fermenter because it’s intended for much bigger batches, sort of five, six gallon batches, but I’m not too concerned about that because during fermentation, that’s going to generate CO2, which should push out any oxygen up through the bubbler here. Um, so I don’t think I’m going to have too many concerns about oxygen getting into the beer.
Now I have to say, I have tried brewing small batches on big systems before, and there are always little gotchas, always things that don’t work quite as well, because it’s not designed to work that way. With this system, I have had absolutely no problems at all. It’s been very smooth and it makes me think that this is something I’m going to do a bit more going forward.
It’s cool. Blimey governor. Golly. Gosh, it’s the British beers. The first of the British beer styles. Watch your mate. How’s it going? Chip chip Cheru. Yeah. Okay?
We are actually are British, so I’m not the fake Mary Poppins one. Okay. So yes, this is the first of the British styles. This is my not so ordinary, ordinary better. Now, how familiar are you with this style? Some commercial ones you might’ve heard of? Um, let’s see. Tetley’s you’re out of Tetley’s? Bit different to that. A brain’s better ever have one of those? No, probably not.
Okay. So I’m pretty curious to see what you think of this, because I think the name puts a lot of people off this sort of style, but, uh, let’s, let’s take a look festival at what this thing looks like. It looks very Amber. Yeah. Kind of a light Amber, isn’t it sort of a golden golden amber maybe?
Yeah, I see that. That’s very, it’s very light. Once again with the honeycomb glass, like makes the light just pop off. It just makes it look good. Right? Yeah. I think this looks like a pretty delicious beer just from, from looks alone.
Um, so let’s see what you get with aroma for this one. It’s pretty broad. What you can get for aroamer with this beer. You can get a bit of a, um, a hop aroma or actually no hop aroma or whatsoever a little bit of malty aroma, a little bit of biscuit aroma. I’m not getting it a huge amount, to be honest. Yeah. I was going to say it’s kind of like across the board on that one, it’s very light in all the sense of sense. Like it’s just kind of “ordinary” or living up to its name. Okay. That’s good. So far.
All right. Let’s, let’s have a taste of our ordinary bitter. Okay. It’s a little bit of a malt profile to it. There is a little bit of hop profile too, even though I don’t think we could smell thehcops, but, but, um, definitely is a little bit of that sort of hoppy taste to it.
This is a very light beer. It’s 3%. Oh, that’s not fun. Well, there is. It’s designed for the English pub, right? So you, you get into the English pub, uh, I dunno, opening hour 11:00 AM or something. And then you just like downing 20 ounce pints of these, uh, through the football game and then it’s expensive. Yeah. Yeah.
But you know, that’s, it’s, it’s designed as a session there. Right? So you can drink a good few of these, um, not just from the alcohol perspective, but from the sort of the drinkability perspective. I think this beer is quite easy to drink, um, which really does fit well with the English pub culture. It’s light as well. Like face pretty light that I could have a couple of them and not I’d still be able to eat dinner later. Yes, yes.
Especially if there’s like a English pub dinner or go for your curry afterwards. So kebabs. So why not? Right. Well, thank you Lauren. Thank you. Cheers!
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.