“Barman, a pint of bitter if you please.” Ah, the quintessential order in an English pub, where almost every cask and every pint glass is filled with a beer called bitter. (In fact, our hypothetical order would have to be considerably more specific, since most of the real ale served at pubs falls into the bitter category.) Bitter … it just may be the perfect all-around, any-occasion beer. The malt and the hops are held in perfect balance. It’s thirst-quenching and sessionable, but packed with flavor.
There are those who believe that bitter is the greatest English contribution to world culture (well, at least the world of beer). It turns out it’s not one of the older beers from England. It took improved malt kilning techniques to achieve the control necessary for pale malts, which also tend to be higher in fermentable sugars than darker malts. They were popular from the start, but it wasn’t until mid-twentieth century that bitter became the most commonly ordered beer in England.
At first, brewers called these hoppier beers brewed mostly with pale malt “pale ales.” Drinkers quickly started calling such beers bitters to differentiate them from the sweeter, less-hopped, often darker mild ales. Almost every older brand of these English beers once referred to as “pale ale” is now called “bitter” by the Brits who quaff down pint after pint of the stuff.
In other words, “English Pale Ale” and “British Bitter” are the same thing.
“Well then, make up your minds,” the less civil among you may be saying, “are you going to change the name of it every month?” The answer, according to our fearless barley ship captain Jake Hafner, is … if need be, yes. Whatever it takes to keep people talking about this most excellent beer, we will do. Twenty years ago, every bar in Saint Louis had Budweiser on draught. Twenty years hence, every bar in Saint Louis will have Civil Life British Bitter on tap (and American Brown Ale of course).
Civil old timers will recall that when we opened, way back in September of 2011, we had four beers on tap: American Brown, German Wheat, British Best (a “best bitter” to be precise), and British Bitter. Since then, we have brewed several different extra special bitters, an ordinary bitter, a premium bitter, as well as the “Proper Pint” and the Angel and the Sword, which are both part of the same general family.
We are committed to bitters! Most of you know that Civil Life British Bitter is not bitter tasting, but occasionally we get a newcomer who says with a look of repugnance, “Bitter … I hate bitter beer. Give me an IPA.” Well friend, IPA is just about the bitterest beer out there.
Back in the 1990s a “beer” called Keystone Light was the product of advanced scientific breakthroughs that allowed the very last traces of flavor to be extracted from American light lager. They launched a massive ad campaign against beers that still retained any flavor (though God knows there were precious few back then, compared to these heady days). They warned drinkers of a serious condition called “Bitter Beer Face,” which contorted the drinker’s face into a misshapen grimace if he or she should be so unfortunate as to take a drink of “bitter” beer. This is why a certain uneducated beer drinker still associates the word “bitter” with an undesirable beer. Disappointed with lackluster sales of our bitter around town, we changed the name to English Pale Ale, hoping it would sell better out in the world, without the benefit of a civil barman providing education on the style when appropriate.
Well, we’ve changed it back. We’re very proud of this beer and we also want to honor its heritage.
The fact is, even before hops were used, brewers used naturally bitter herbs to balance the sweetness of malt to keep beers from being cloyingly sweet. It’s all about balance. Trust us, we’ll never release a one thousand IBU monster called Hopfist IPA.
What we’ll keep brewing is our outstanding British Bitter, which English customers have told us rivals many a traditional bitter back home. And it should, as we use a very traditional English base malt called Maris Otter, an English yeast strain, and two of the oldest and most popular English hop varieties, Fuggles and East Kent Goldings.
The taste of our British bitter is superb. It has a malt richness that is round without being too full. It has bread and biscuit characteristics with a hint of nuttiness. The hop is lemon and floral with some woodsy, herbaceous, and spicy notes. Our own barman and brewery factotum Joe Mooney (whose palate is insured with Lloyd’s of London for one million dollars) describes the characteristic flavors of our bitter as brewed tea and bright lemon citrus.
At 4.2% alcohol, it is eminently sessionable. It’s food friendly and drinks well in all climates. Real ale fans rejoice—it’ll be back on cask by late February, though we generally have it available on draught. Come down to the pub and order a pint of bitter—pronounce it boldly and proudly. After your first sip, you’ll be the beneficiary of what you might call Civil beer face. It’s the look of perfect contentment. ~ Dr. Patrick Hurley of Tower Grove South.
Patrick can be found at the Civil Life tending bar on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
The Civil Blog has returned. It is predominantly authored by Civil Life Barman, Dr. Patrick Hurley, who can be found tending to our bar patrons on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He is also responsible for tending to our draft lines, which is recognized as one of our most important tasks. Special guest writers will appear from time to time. We hope reading this blog will give you much insight about the Civil Life and most importantly help you understand a bit more about all of us that work here and the beers we put our hearts into.