Modern breweries are embracing the beer style that was once eclipsed by the craft movement. Will Hawkes investigates the return of bitters
The Pembury Tavern is one of east London’s best modern pubs. Owned by the brewery Five Points, this imposing Victorian boozer’s beer range demonstrates not only its owners’ creativity, but that of many other great British breweries, too. On any given day, there’ll be impressive diversity on its bar: porter, American pale ale, Berliner weisse, Pilsner, and best bitter.
That’s right: one of Five Points’ best-selling beers is a classic bitter, made with Fuggles, an iconic English hop, and often – depending on how provocative the bar staff are feeling – served through a sparkler. It couldn’t be much more traditional if it was wearing a flat cap and moaning about how much tougher life used to be, but it’s not an outlier – more and more of Britain’s most well-respected modern producers are having a go at brewing what most people would consider an old-world beer.
Breweries like Thornbridge, Cloudwater, Anspach & Hobday, Magic Rock, Beatnikz Republic and more besides have done it in the last year or so. At the same time, traditional classics like Timothy Taylor Landlord and Harvey’s Sussex Best are beginning to enjoy cult status among craft-beer drinkers. It’s a remarkable turnaround. Until relatively recently, anything with even a whiff of bitter about it was derided as ‘twiggy’, only suitable for card-carrying CAMRA members whose idea of haute couture was a stained ‘Stevenage Beer Fest ‘87’ t-shirt. What has happened?
Pure & simple
‘In this day and age where breweries are making all these amazing, hugely flavourful beers, I want something that I can drink that’s uncomplicated,’ says Greg Hobbs, head brewer at Five Points. ‘It’s still delicious, but it’s really balanced and I don’t have to think about it... that’s best bitter.’ It’s not just Hobbs who wants something straightforward, either: launched in the spring of 2019, Five Points Best already represents close to 5% of the brewery’s output.
‘We’ve always half-joked about making a best bitter; we actually ended up launching it during [the beer festival] Hop City in Leeds, at a fringe event at Whitelock’s,’ says Hobbs. ‘The day before I was like, “Oh my God, what are we doing? All these breweries from around the world are coming to showcase their hop-forward beers and we’re releasing a best bitter”. But, everyone loved it! It went down a storm.’
The key to the beer is the use of Fuggles hops, sourced from the Weald of Kent, their ancestral home. Hobbs says the brewery has brewed one batch with Goldings, but that they plan to stick with Fuggles for the foreseeable future. ‘The quality of the Fuggles makes that beer,’ he says. The volume of hops used makes for a fi rm, almost austere bitterness that is very diff erent from some of the more mimsy family brewer ales; ‘That’s how we like it,’ says Hobbs.
Five Points is not the only brewery to go looking in the Weald of Kent for its hops; Thornbridge did likewise for its Heartland ale, which was also first brewed in the spring. It’s a bit less traditional than Five Points’ beer – head brewer Rob Lovatt calls it an ‘English cellar beer’ because it’s unfiltered like a Bavarian kellerbier. ‘It’s really unprocessed and as natural as you could have it, really,’ says Lovatt of the beer, which is brewed with Maris Otter malt and a touch of wheat for head retention.
‘It has the hops, but also all those other things that I like about English beer. English yeast in particular; it’s just got so much more character than a lot of other yeasts.’ What’s special about English yeast varieties? ‘They’re fruity – it’s hard to put an actual flavour descriptor on it. I suppose it’s just more three-dimensional. I can tell when a beer has got English yeast in it, or whether it’s dried yeast. The ones using dried yeast are one-dimensional. I go back to the brewer and I say “what yeast do you use?” It always turns out to be an English wet yeast. You can actually taste it.’
You need to bridge that gap between real ale drinkers and the new crowd
Lovatt is an interesting character: he’s passionate about traditional styles, both British and foreign, but his role as Thornbridge head brewer means he spends much of his time brewing (great) hoppy pale ales. In the past he’s introduced more traditional beers – like an excellent Bière de Garde, which didn’t last long – but he’s under no illusions about what the market really wants. How well is Heartland selling? ‘We are selling it, but we’re not selling as much as Green Mountain (Thornbridge’s Vermont-style session IPA) – so I guess that’s your answer,’ he says.
Nonetheless, he acknowledges that the fact modern brewers are seeking to take on traditional bitter (Thornbridge has also recently produced an ESB for St John, the iconic London restaurant) could change perceptions. ‘You need to bridge that gap between real ale drinkers and the new crowd,’ he says. ‘This beer sits somewhere in between, doesn’t it? It’s not too fuddy duddy, it’s kind of modern.’
Old meets new
The recent jump in demand for classic continental lagers – from Franconian kellerbier to Czech lagers – demonstrates that modern beer’s hop obsession may be coming to an end. Drinkers who have spent the past half-decade and more seeking out the latest Yakima Valley hop are now ready for something a bit more laid back. ‘I think there are two elements to this,’ says Paul Greetham, founder and brewer at Beatnikz Republic in Manchester.
He’s been brewing Leather Soul, a modern bitter, for just over a year; it’s made with eight different malts and a mixture of English and New Zealand hops. ‘Craft beer has a desire for novelty, which means beers can come back and be new again. But best bitter has never gone away.
Real ale and craft beer have gone from being at odds, to merging. Modernity and traditional are now interwoven to the point where I think everyone just realises they’re under the umbrella of “good beer”.’
Which is good news by anyone’s standards. The problem for this new generation of best bitters is the same as for more well-established beers: quality at the point of sale. Cask ale needs good cellarmanship as much as good brewing. ‘That is something that is really important to us, and quite difficult as well because craft beer bars often want to be seen to have as many taps as possible,’ says Hobbs. ‘You’ll go in and there are eight hand pulls, none of them turning over.’ That’s not good for quality. It’s much easier, of course, when you control dispense as well as the production, as Five Points does with the Pembury Tavern and Thornbridge with its growing family of pubs.
Hobbs says he’s keen to add an ‘ordinary’ bitter to the brewery’s range next year, and Lovatt also has plans for a new traditional beer: ‘I’m thinking of doing a best bitter in bottles, and bottle-conditioning it – because everyone seems to have stopped doing that now. You never find them in supermarkets.’ While that might not be completely true – Marston’s Pedigree, for example, is bottle-conditioned – it’s clearly good news for bitter lovers. The beer that craft forgot is back in fashion.