Sunday 20 January 2013

Bière ordinaire

Robinson’s Unicorn (formerly Best Bitter), the best-selling cask ale in and around Stockport, is brewed to a relatively generous 4.2% ABV. It’s fairly rare for a beer of that strength to be sold as the staple bitter in pubs, and I’ve heard people complaining that “it gives them a bad head”, probably because it’s that little bit stronger than most of its competitors.

It’s sometimes claimed by anti-drink campaigners that drinkers will simply “go for strength”, but in fact that is very wide of the mark. Beer has a much wider range of strengths than wines or spirits, but in reality beers of a particular type tend to cluster within a fairly narrow strength range, and people rarely choose one over another just because it is that bit stronger.

“Ordinary bitter” took over from mild as the best-selling beer in Britain in the early 60s and, although it has now relinquished that position to cooking lager, it remains by far the best-selling type of ale. Despite the rise of golden ales and premium beers, I would guess it still accounts for well over half of all real ale sold, and a much higher proportion of keg beers.

Typically it falls in a strength range between 3.4% and 4.0%, and within that I don’t really think drinkers are too concerned about the actual strength. Indeed, one of the best-regarded examples, Brakspear Bitter, is down at 3.4%. Intoxication is not the main object of drinking ordinary bitter. It’s a beer suited to long evening sessions in the pub, where the effect builds up gradually and it acts as a social lubricant. It doesn’t instantly render you incapable; a couple at lunchtime won’t stop you working in the afternoon, or cause you to fall foul of the breathalyser. It’s a subtle, social kind of beer. Up to a point, as with the example of Unicorn, moderation in strength is even seen as a virtue. Arguably, it is the quintessential English beer.

This helps explain why the reduction in strength of John Smith’s Extra Smooth won’t be met with outrage and boycotts, just as the reduction of Stella wasn’t. As long as a beer continues to fit within its category, drinkers, especially pub drinkers, won’t be too bothered.

Out of interest, here are the strengths of the some of the popular ordinary bitters in the North-West, compared with their original gravities from the 1977 Good Beer Guide:

  • Holt’s Bitter: 4.0% (1038.5)

  • Hyde’s Bitter 3.8% (1036)

  • Lees Bitter: 4.0% (1038)

  • Robinson’s Unicorn/Best Bitter: 4.2% (1042)

  • Sam Smith’s Old Brewery Bitter: 4.0% (1039.9)

  • Tetley Cask Bitter: 3.7% (1035.5)

  • Thwaites Bitter: 3.6% (1036)
So we weren’t drinking particularly strong beers back in 1977 either, and nobody would have been outraged at being offered a 3.6% bitter.

Boddingtons Bitter – now no longer available in cask – was declared at 1035 in 1977. The brand owners made a big mistake when they increased its strength to 4.1% a few years before its demise – indeed Brunning & Price replaced it with Thwaites because their regular customers (no doubt including many drivers) felt it had become too strong.


  1. What is needed in pubs isn't just clear price lists but a bang per buck count. Why doesn't Europes biggest consumer group pull its thumb out?

  2. Interestingly by far the most idely available beer that Harvey's produce is brewed to a strength of just 4.0%, but is called a "Best Bitter". Their weaker 3.5% brew (Hadlow Bitter), was formerly called Sussex Pale Ale rather than "ordinary bitter". It is only normally found in the company's tied houses, and not in the free trade.

  3. I long thought, Paul, Bitter was sub 4%, Best Bitter 4-5% & Special Bitter 5+%. But heh, could be wrong, I don't think it was enscribed in law or owt. Not sure what % range boring brown bitter is in, or craft bitter or old man bitter.

  4. Craft bitter's 8% and up, I think.

    How they talk about strength is one of the ways the crafterati differentiate themselves from CAMRA Man, I think. There always used to be a straightforward machismo around strong beers - "6%? that'll put hairs on your chest!" "8%? I'd better just have the one pint... for now!". Craft types take the opposite approach, affecting to be totally blasé about these supposedly high-strength beers - so you see blog posts expressing surprise that a double stout is "only" 12%, or referring to a 6% IPA as "session strength". It's all the same ABV willy-waving at the end of the day.

  5. I sometimes refer to a real ale that's over 5% as "A good session beer", but only as a wind-up to see the reactions.

  6. But for the crafterati a session is sharing a few bottles of barrel aged imperial stout between about 8 of them and going onto ratebeer or live tweeting their reactions.

  7. That is interesting about the Crafterati, Phil. It explains why when you meet one they complain about their gout despite being under 30. They all have it for genetic reasons, not because they are piss heads, doncha know. I'm still looking for a link between ale and beard growth and taste in cheap 80's jumpers, though.

  8. It's all about the taste/ABV ratio. Any mug can make a 7% imperial something-or-other that makes you wince. On the other hand, never tasted a beer below 3% that didn't taste mainly of water.

  9. Martin, Cambridge23 January 2013 at 19:09

    py) - case for the defence; Brewdog Edge on cask, or Blitz in bottles, full of flavour.

  10. There's a good argument that getting such character and variety out of beers of such relatively modest strength is one of the greatest achievements of British brewing.


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