I recently made a couple of beers modeled after an English strong bitter, though neither would be considered conventional for the style. One was the base recipe from my Burton Ale, which I previously wrote about, and the other is my Rye, Bitte recipe, which is a second attempt that had hopping changes after the first came out much more like a malty Festbier-like rye ale. I’m currently working on delving deeper into what it is I like about bitters as a style, and what it takes to get there with my recipes.
Both recipes used a water modification first for me: addition of gypsum. According to my water report, we have water heavily balanced with chloride over sulfate, and I’ve never cared enough to do anything about it. As bitters are some of the hop forward ales from the British Isles, I decided it would be a good time to try upping the gypsum content of the water a little. My calculated SO4:Cl ratio is 0.3, so I took that up to a neutrally balanced 1.2 for both recipes.
I treated both recipes the same in terms of hopping rates, targetting a bittering ratio of about 0.65, and both received a 2oz whirlpool addition of EKG. I added the whirlpool at flameout, dropped the temp to about 175F quickly and then stopped the water flow through my chiller for 5 minutes. I’ve found this gives a nice low level flavour and aroma, but I might try upping it to 3oz in the future to see what kind of change that makes.
This recipe is the closer of the two to an actual strong bitter with respect to stats and in flavour. The brown malt gives the beer a low level flavour of roast that could subtle enough to go unnoticed, or at least unrecognised, to some drinking the beer. The Golden Naked Oats give the beer a haze that hasn’t gone away and I doubt will at this point, and also contribute their characteristic slightly sweet and almost fruity flavour. The hops are noticeable in both flavour and aroma from the whirlpool, but don’t overpower the other flavours in the beer. I’m on the fence as to whether all the flavours in the beer marry together well, though it is enjoyable to drink and those I’ve shared it with have liked it as well. I think this beer is slightly too sweet for the ‘style’, and future iterations will be hopped with a bittering ratio of about 0.75 versus the 0.65 I used this time.
This beer is much closer to the strong bitter style what I wanted it to be instead of the malty first attempt. It is on the darker side for a bitter, probably more appropriate for the lighter end of a brown ale, but I’m not going for complete stylistic accuracy here. In terms of flavour not only is the malt/bitter balance better, but I also upped the amout of rye to 30% of the grist from 25% and the rye flavour is definitely more prominent. There is more perceived bitterness in this beer compared to the Buton Bitter due to the rye, but I don’t think I would mind it being a little more bitter. I might notch it up to the 0.70-0.75 range on the next batch. The whirlpool addition of EKG is similarly present in aroma when compared to the Burton Bitter, but the flavour blends in with the rye and is less distinct.
Bitter Brewing Takeways
While my first two attempts this year at a strong bitter styled beers weren’t technically true to style, I think I learned a few things. First, my preferred level of bitterness for the style is higher than what I used both of these beers. Both my Special Bitter and Golden Ale recipes uses about a 0.75 bittering ratio, so I know I was on the right track there. Next up will be to update and rebrew the Special Bitter (might rename it to Strong Bitter). Second is that a 2oz whirlpool dropped to 170F and held for 5 minutes is enough to impart a modest hop flavour. I am curious how this would change with an extra ounce of hops or a longer whirlpool. Third is that I now have a pretty good feel for the flavour and aroma imparted by EKG as a late addition hop. Experimenting with other English hops would be a good next step as well, probably starting with my oft-used bittering hop, Phoenix.