Beer is our national drink and there's never been a better time to enjoy it. Of all the beer styles available to us today there is arguably one that is more inextricably linked to British beer culture than any other - bitter.


So what is a bitter? 'Bitter' is a nickname dating from the mid nineteenth century to distinguish the beer from other popular beers of the time - porter and lightly hopped mild. It's a wide ranging style but what they all should have in common is an assertive flavour even if the alcohol content is low, and the strength can be anything from 3.0% ABV to 5-6% ABV.

If someone says 'bitter' to you it might conjure thoughts of cask-conditioned ale (or real ale) that personifies British brewing and pubs in the late twentieth and twenty first century. Those beers that have no discernible carbonation and are pale or dark amber in colour with fruity caramel notes and are light-medium or even full bodied. And if that's what the word 'bitter' says to you then you'd be bang on because, in essence, that's what they are.

Bitter cask pumps


Traditionally bitters have varied greatly from region to region. Kent brewer Shepherd Neame produce Canterbury Jack which has a pronounced citrus character, whereas the Midlands was renowned for sweeter versions with Marston's Burton Bitter a good example. Wales was the home for more malt driven bitters while creamier, smooth bitters could be found in Yorkshire and fruity, dry beers were enjoyed in Manchester. Nowadays bitters still offer their broad flavour profiles but are less region centric.The breadth of flavour, aroma and body ensure bitters are a great accompaniment to many a meal. The bright amber coloured Joshua Jane by Ilkley Brewery is a nutty, earthy and chocolatey beer which complements a beef casserole very well.  Come BBQ season you'd do well to grab a bottle of Windor & Eton's Guardsman, its caramel notes entwining seamlessly with grilled burgers, sausages and steak. Staying with caramel for a moment, you'll find that in Fuller's London Pride balanced by a bitterness that ensures it's a fine friend to Sunday's roast chicken.

Unsurprisingly classic pub grub finds a perfect partner in bitters. Fish and chips will benefit from the citrus notes of St Peter's Best Bitter and its tingly carbonation will scrub the palate after each bite. Bangers and mash does well with bitters. Morland's Old Speckled Hen has a subtle sweetness that complements the sausages while its smooth texture marries perfectly with mash. Purity's Pure UBU has toffee and orange notes ensuring a solid relationship with a shepherd's pie, while Brakspear's Bitter has the dexterity to complement most of your favourite pies, shepherd's or otherwise.

But it's not all pubs and meat, a glass of bitter can happily sit at any dining table and suit any course. Sambrooke's Pumphouse is light and citrusy so pairs well with white fish. Spicier main courses such as a creamy and herby lamb pasanda will find similar creaminess in Belhaven Best which will also contrast any heat. For dessert why not have bannoffee pie with with Charles' Wells Banana Bread Beer (we probably don't need to explain why they complement each other so well). Cheese is no stranger to the charms of the right bitter either. Haresfoot Brewery's Lock Keeper's has a fruity sweetness that'll spike similar in cheddar. Hook Norton's popular Old Hooky displays the caramel flavour you'll find in gouda and emmental, while Young's Bitter is creamy and slightly fruity so complements soft, strong flavoured cheeses like brie and camembert.

So you see it's good to be bitter. Almost all breweries produce one, almost all meals can be paired with one and it's almost certain there's one you'll enjoy.

Discover your best bitter with Beer Explorer, our interactive guide.

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