I’ve argued in the past that ordinary bitter, as a category, is perhaps the single greatest achievement of British brewing, managing to combine a huge amount of character, flavour and variety into something that, by international standards, is untypically low in strength. But, by definition, it’s intended as an everyday quaffing beer for having a couple of pints at lunchtime without writing off the rest of the day, or an evening session in the pub that still leaves you reasonably clear-headed the following morning. It’s not meant to be an exotic show pony for sniffing, sipping and holding up to the light. So can any examples really be considered amongst the greats of the beer world?
In the past, the original Boddingtons Bitter was widely regarded as the cream of the crop, although that was thirty-five years ago or more, and the beer was dumbed down by Boddingtons well before it was sold to Whitbread. It often seemed that unusually pale bitters gained more attention, possibly because they stood out from the crowd – the late lamented Yates & Jackson Bitter was another in the same category, as was the original Theakston’s. Thirty years ago, Leeds-brewed Tetley bitter was widely respected as a distinctive pint. In the south, Young’s was often seen as the definitive crisp, quaffable, hoppy “ordinary”, while Brakspear’s from Henley-on-Thames was the ideal bittersweet, slightly earthy country bitter.
But all of those are beers that have either disappeared completely or have lost something by being switched to other owners and other plants. Which ordinary bitters stand out amongst those currently available? The one that immediately springs to mind is Harvey’s of Lewes, which many see as a perfect balance of malt and hops, although I have to say when I lived in the South-East in the early 80s it wasn’t really seen as that special, with King & Barnes being more highly regarded. Batham’s is often mentioned the same breath, but at 4.3% it really belongs in the same category as Robinson’s Unicorn as a best bitter sold as an ordinary.
Beyond that, Adnams, Hook Norton, Batemans and Taylor’s Boltmaker all receive many plaudits. The Manchester area has always been regarded as a stronghold of ordinary bitter. Of the current family brewers, Lees are currently enjoying a purple patch, and I have always regarded Robinson’s Unicorn (although really a “best”) as a fine beer. So is its newer stablemate Wizard, although I can imagine some spluttering at the suggestion that it qualified as great. Holt’s, while still a decent pint when well-kept, never really comes close to the wonderfully bitter brew of thirty years ago, while Hydes has always been a bit second-division, along with the Burtonwoods and Everard’s Beacons of this world. And I like OBB, although others don’t so much.
Many of the new-wave breweries made their name through producing premium ales, but beers such as Butcombe Bitter and Woodforde’s Wherry established strong local reputations, and more recently Leeds Pale has become almost ubiquitous in the bars of its home city. Beers such as Marble Pint and Dark Star Hophead represent distinctly modern hop-forward interpetations of the style, and across the country a popular “ordinary” from a local micro has often replaced the big brewers’ offerings in its own area. A good example of this is Stonehouse Station Bitter, which is widely found in North-West Shropshire and across the border into Wales. And there are many others from both established and new breweries that there isn’t space to mention.
It’s worth pointing out that the ubiquitous Doom Bar, while presented as a premium ale, is only 4.0% on draught and so really should be considered as an “ordinary”. And, while Golden Ales are often presented as an entirely new category, what are they doing that Stones Bitter didn’t in the 70s? If they fall within the appropriate strength range, they’re ordinary bitters, regardless of what it says on the pumpclip.
While its market share has been eroded in recent years by the rise of widely-distributed premium best bitters such as London Pride, Bombardier and Wainwright, ordinary bitter (defined broadly as any beers between 3.4% and 4.0% ABV in the gold-amber-copper colour spectrum) probably still accounts for half of all cask beer drunk in the UK, and undoubtedly more if you extend the definition to include keg ales too. But it still tends to be regarded as something of a poor relation against more fashionable, stronger and more heavily-promoted beers.
So can any beers in this category truly be regarded as great, or are they all well, just a bit “ordinary”?