In the great enthusiasm for West Coast style pale ales and IPAs, bitter, the somewhat unobtrusive British cousin of these styles, has been relatively ignored.

Three and one half decades ago, on my first (and only) visit to England, I tasted my first English bitter. My father had invited me to a pub lunch at the local in a small village we were visiting and, horrified when I ordered a lager, insisted I have a bitter. I liked it. It tasted different. In fact, it had taste.

Back in Canada, I returned to my lagers (that’s all there really was) and then, when the microbrewing revolution turned to pale ales and IPAs. Most microbrewers didn’t include bitter on their list. “If I do an English style pale ale that’s close enough. The word bitter would scare people off. It’s like a bad four-letter word to them,” one brewer told me.

On the last Friday in May, I decided to rectify my neglect of the style and, on my month-end trip to Edmonton’s Sherbrooke Liquor Store, I picked up four varieties of the style (they were on the pale ale shelves). Later that afternoon I joined with my tasting associates to try them out.

We started with FULLERS E.S.B., one of the great English examples of this great English beer. Low in carbonation, deep golden in colour, it had a smoothe mouth feel and a balance between malts and hops. One taster, who had no use for lagers, said it would be good for “summer quaffing.” Another remarked on the pleasant, bitter finish. The third just wanted to know if there was any more.

Pumphouse S.O.B., from Moncton, NB’s very popular microbrewery, was a lighter gold in colour and more effervescent. it has a more pronounced bitterness, although there were citrusy notes reminiscent of some West Coast pales. It has a more pronounced bitterness than the Fullers and wasn’t as smoothe as that beer. One taster called it “a little edgy,” another said it was almost like a pale ale. The third, who after frowns the last time didn’t ask for more, praised its “robust flavour.” It was 5.0 per cent ABV.

Alberta’s entry in our tasting session, Wild Rose’s S.O.B., was the “weakest” of the four tested at 4.1 per cent ABV. Sweeter than the others, with a mild hop presence, it was lighter in body and colour that Fullers and Pump House. One taster though she dected dandelion notes. Another remarked that the beer was “bordering on bland.” “It certainly isn`t threatening,” said the third. It seemed almost designed to be a summer session beer.

Everyone agreed that Howe Sound’s Bail Out Bitter (named during the financial problems of a couple of years ago) was the most interesting of the four. It balanced mild malt flavours with earthy hop notes. Not so assertive as the Pum House brand, it had a subtle complexity of flavours. “This is a very interesting beer,” remarked one of the group. “It isn`t so in your face`as the others,” observed another.

Overall the members of the group wwere divided evenly between Fullers and Howe Sound as to which one they liked best. Unfortunately, they were unanimous in agreeing that the Wild Rose version needed some beefing up.

But we all agreed, that English bitter deserved more recognition than it currently was receiving. “When I first heard the word bitter,” one of the group told us, “I thought of something really mouth-puckering. It isn’t. But if bitter means that it doesn’t have malty sweetness, then I’m all for it.” Each agreed to advance the cause.

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