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Pale Ale

A glass of bitter

Bitter is a British term for a type of beer or pale ale. The expression first appeared in the UK in the early 19th century as part of the development and spread of pale ale.

Brief history[]

Pale ale was a term used for beers made from malt dried with coke. Coke had been first used for roasting malt in 1642, but it wasn't until around 1703 that the term pale ale was first used. By 1784 adverts were appearing in the Calcutta Gazette for "light and excellent" pale ale. By 1830 onward the expressions bitter and pale ale were synonymous. Breweries would tend to designate beers as pale ale, though customers would commonly refer to the same beers as bitter. It is thought that customers used the term bitter to differentiate these pale ales from other less noticeably hopped beers such as porter and mild. By the mid to late 20th century, while brewers were still labeling bottled beers as pale ale, they had begun identifying cask beers as bitter. While the two terms are still used interchangeably in the UK, the preference is for the term bitter to be used for both bottled and cask beer, and use of the term pale ale has declined, except in the case of India pale ale.


Bitter belongs in the pale ale style grouping, though bitter does have a greater variety of strength, flavor and appearance than mainstream pale ale. A bitter can be dark amber, approaching a stout, or be very golden and delicate like a golden summer ale. It can also go under 3% abv as with Boys Bitter and as high as 7% with some premium or strong bitters. During the early to mid 20th century there were some regional preferences noted which may still be detected in the beers of some of the more established breweries. In Cornwall, Wales, North England and Scotland the preference was for sweeter, less hopped beer. In other areas, particularly Southeast England, the preference was for hoppy beers.

Sub-types of bitter[]

British brewers have several loose names for variations in beer strength, such as IPA, best bitter, special bitter, extra special bitter, and premium bitter. There is no agreed and defined difference between an ordinary and a best bitter other than one particular brewery's best bitter will usually be stronger than its ordinary. Two groups of drinkers may mark differently the point at which a best bitter then becomes a premium bitter. Hop levels will vary within each sub group, though there is a tendency for the hops in the session bitter group to be more noticeable.

Drinkers tend to loosely group the beers into:

Session or ordinary bitter[]

Strength up to 4.1% abv. The majority of British beers with the name IPA will be found in this group, such as Greene King IPA, Flowers IPA, Wadworth Henrys Original IPA, etc. Though bearing the name IPA these session bitters are not strong or hoppy. This is the most common strength of bitter sold in British pubs. According to the Statistical Handbook of the British Beer and Pub Association, it accounts for 16.9% of pub sales.

Best or regular bitter[]

Strength between 4.2% and 4.7% abv. According to the Statistical Handbook of the British Beer and Pub Association, bitter above 4.2% abv accounts for just 2.9% of pub sales.

Premium or strong bitter[]

Strength of 4.8% abv and over. Also known as extra special bitter, or ESB (in the USA only - ESB is a brand name in the UK).

Light ale[]

Light ale is a crisply carbonated, low hopped, low abv bottled bitter that is mainly used as a mix with another beer, but is sometimes used as a low alcohol beer.

Bitter outside Britain[]

The term bitter by itself is little used in the United States. The term pale ale or ESB is more commonly used. Where bitter is used it indicates a pale ale of lower alcohol content brewed in a less hop-focused style than typical American pale ales. American bitters often use British varieties of hops.

In Australia, bitter is used for several popular Australian lagers such as Victoria Bitter.

Popular Bitters[]

  • Harvey's Sussex Best Bitter
  • Tetley's
  • John Smith's
  • Worthington Draught bitter


WikipediaLogoSmall This page uses content from Wikipedia. The original article was at Bitter (beer). The list of authors can be seen in the page history. As with Beer Wiki, the text of Wikipedia is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License 3.0.