Back to Ask the Brewmaster.

Question: What is the distinction between English Bitter, Best Bitter and English Pale Ale? How do they differ from American Pale Ale?

Answer: Bitter, Best Bitter and English Pale Ale are the three styles of beer that make up Category 4, Light English Ale in the BJCP style guide. All three share common characteristics of significant bitterness, hard sulfate water and fairly light types of malt. They all have some amount of fruity ester, and may lave low levels of diacetyl. They all originated in England with the advent of lightly-kilned malt in the late1700's. The three styles don't have sharp boundaries, between them; the distinction is fairly arbitrary. The BJCP style guide separates them based on starting gravity.

English Bitter is the lowest-strength version of this beer. It is a session beer, with a starting gravity of 1.030 to 1.038. With an alcohol content of only about 3½%, you can start early on this one. The name bitter suggest a high hop level, but this is not necessarily the case. The name actually comes from a comparison to English Mild, a brown ale with only half of the bitterness. Bitters are generally made from pale malt, with a distinct contribution from caramelly crystal malt. English hops are featured, though usually the aroma is low. It is often found in pubs, with a very low carbonation level, served from hand-drawn beer engines. Boddington's Bitter represents the style fairly well, even up to the pub-draught style can.

Best Bitter, also called Special Bitter, starts off with an original gravity of 1.039 to 1.045. The malt profile is usually much more apparent in these beers. The bitterness level is a bit higher than bitter, though there is considerable overlap. Fuller's London Pride represents this style, though it is considerably maltier than most examples.

English Pale Ale is the strongest beer in the family. This beer is generally designated Extra Special Bitter when served on tap, or Pale Ale when served in bottles. Starting gravity ranges from 1.046 to 1.065. Both malt flavor and hop bitterness level considerably higher in this beer. Bass Ale is typical of this beer.

These English beers differ from their American counterparts in a couple of ways. First is the type of hops used. The English varieties use Fuggles or Kent Goldings, and are fairly light in aroma. American styles, in contrast, use more citrusy styles such as Cascade, Centennial or Columbus, with a strong hop aroma. Secondly, the English ales typically have a more complex malt profile, emphasizing a caramelly aspect that is usually lacking in the American varieties. Finally, the water used for the American versions doesn't have as much sulfate.

If you're making a bitter, start out with English 2-row pale malt. Add a good dose of English crystal malt, increasing the amount for the stronger versions. Some recipes call for a bit of adjunct sugars as well, such as molasses or brown sugar. Aim for the starting gravity shown in the table below. Add gypsum or Burton salts to the brewing water to bring up the sulfate levels. Select the bitterness level so that the balance slightly exceeds malt. Put the flavor hop addition in fairly early, and don't put in any final aroma hops. Pitch with English yeasts such as London or British Ale (1028 or 1098 from Wyeast), or Burton Ale yeast (WLP023 from White Labs). Ferment the beer fairly warm to generate a mild estery note. English Bitters mature quickly, especially the lighter varieties, so you can usually skip the secondary fermentation. Keep the amount of priming sugar or CO2 pressure on the low side.

Vital Statistics for English Bitter and Pale Ales

Style Starting
Gravity
Final
Gravity
Bitterness, IBU Color, SRM Hop Aroma
Ordinary Bitter 1.030-1.038 1.008-1.013 20-40 6-14 Low-Med
Best Bitter 1.039-1.045 1.009-1.014 20-45 6-14 Low-Med
English Pale Ale 1.046-1.065 1.011-1.020 30-65 6-14 Low-Med
American Pale Ale 1.045-1.056 1.010-1.015 20-40 4-11 Med-High