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Measuring the Original Gravity
Measuring the Original Gravity

Brewing a Strong Bitter

Aerating or oxygenating the Strong Bitter wort
Aerating or oxygenating the Strong Bitter wort

Previously in this series of articles on How to brew different Styles of Beer? we covered Brewing an American Porter, this time the Beer Style comes from the ‘English Bitters’ category in the BJCP 2014 Guidelines and is the style of a Strong Bitter.

In the following sections we are going to examine different aspects of this style such as its background, the style guidelines, ingredients used, sample recipes, brewing process, and finally the outcome of brewing a batch of this beer.


English Bitters evolved from English Pale Ales in the late 19th Century as lower hopped, darker and cask-served beers. The casks were kept at cellar temperatures of 11-13 deg C (52-55 deg F) with a limited life once tapped which allowed air in from the top of the cask to replace the beer that was hand-pumped out.

Casks used to be wooden and had a limited distribution being regionally at best whilst modern day casks are often made out of stainless steel and thanks to modern logistics are distributed nationally and sometimes even internationally.

Yeast starter (London Ale - Wyeast 1028)
Yeast starter
(London Ale – Wyeast 1028)

The preparation and care for casked beer was traditionally carried out by a Cellarman which involved stillaging (placing the cask level to allow the sediment to settle), venting, conditioning, tapping, and tilting. When bitters moved from being lowly carbonation smooth beers stored in casks to being more highly carbonated and stored in pressurized kegs in the 20th century these skills largely disappeared.

During the late 20th, and early this century, there has now been a resurgence in the desire to drink cask-conditioned beer in both the UK and US which has been fueled by the growth in the Craft Beer and Homebrewing scenes.

The serving of these bitters varied regionally throughout England from little foam or head and served slightly warmer or less chilled in the south to a thick creamy head and more chilled in the north. Nowadays this is not necessarily the case with serving temperature and head preference varying across the country and even between different pubs within the same locality.

Within the English Bitters category there are three different styles of beer which vary in alcohol and hopping rates from Ordinary Bitters, through Best Bitters, to Strong Bitters. The Strong Bitter style, which is often known as an ESB (Extra Special/Strong Bitter) or EPA (English Pale Ale), tends to be malty and bitter with a reddish color.


In the BJCP 2008 Style Guidelines all the Bitters were grouped within the English Pale Ale category (see here), but now the category has been renamed and the styles have been simplified naming-wise as follows:

BJCP 2014 BJCP 2008
Category 11: English Bitters
8: English Pale Ale
Styles 11A: Ordinary Bitter 8A: Standard/Ordinary Bitter
11B: Best Bitter 8B: Special/Best/Premium Bitter
11C: Strong Bitter 8C: Extra Special/Strong Bitter
(English Pale Ale)

In the new guidelines the vital statistics of the Strong Bitter beer style have largely remained unchanged except for the lower range of the color characteristic being increased by two points:

  • Original Gravity (OG) = 1.048 – 1.060
  • Final Gravity (FG) = 1.010 – 1.016
  • Alcohol By Volume (ABV) = 4.6 – 6.2%
  • Bitterness (IBUs) = 30 – 50
  • Color (SRM) = 8 – 18


Base & Specialty malts
Base & Specialty malts:
– Maris Otter pale malt
– Torrified Wheat
– Crystal 40L
– Chocolate malt

According to the BJCP 2014 Guidelines the following are characteristic ingredients used in the brewing of a Strong Bitter:

  • Malts: Pale ale, amber, and/or crystal malts, may use a touch of black malt for color adjustment. May use sugar adjuncts, corn or wheat.
  • Hops: English finishing hops are most traditional, but any hops are fair game; if American hops are used, a light touch is required.
  • Yeast: Characterful English yeast.
  • Water: Burton versions use medium to high sulfate water, which can increase the perception of dryness and add a minerally or sulfury aroma and flavor.
  • Additions: Not specified.


Below are some sample recipes for 5 gallon batches of Strong Bitters, ESB’s or English Pale Ales from leading authors in the homebrewing community together with some analysis on how they comply with the style guidelines:

– Old Speckled Hen –

Organic cane sugar
Organic cane sugar

Source: CloneBrews
Author: Tess & Mark Szamatulski

  • 8 Lbs British 2-row Pale Ale malt
  • 4 oz British Wheat malt
  • 12 oz British Crystal 55L
  • 8 oz cane sugar
  • 0.75 oz Challenger (90 min)
  • 0.5 oz Challenger hops (15 min)
  • 0.5 oz East Kent Goldings hops (15 min)
  • 1 oz East Kent Goldings hops (1 min)
  • Irish Ale yeast (Wyeast 1028) or London Ale yeast (Wyeast 1028)


  • OG: 1.052-1.053
  • FG: 1.010-1.012
  • ABV: 5.2%
  • Bitterness: 35 IBUs
  • Color: 12 SRM


  • Malts: the malts in this recipe are specifically named as British versions and are all within the guidelines.
  • Hops: these are all traditional English varieties so are therefore within style.
  • Yeast: the London Ale option would seem the more logical choice as having English characteristics over the Irish Ale.
  • Statistics: Starting and Finishing Gravities are within the style ranges as is the alcohol content. The bitterness and color are also both within their respective ranges though in the lower halves.

– Pride of Warwick –

Selection of Bittering hops
Selection of Bittering hops

Source: Brewing Better Beer
Author: Gordon Strong

  • 13 Lbs Maris Otter malt
  • 1/3 Lb Victory malt
  • 1/2 Lb flaked maize
  • 3/4 Lb Crystal 80L malt
  • 1 oz Black Patent malt
  • 1 oz East Kent Goldings (90 min)
  • 0.5 oz Challenger (60 min)
  • 0.5 oz Fuggles (30 min)
  • 1 oz East Kent Goldings (3 min)
  • 1 oz Styrian Goldings (0 min)
  • English Ale yeast (White Labs WLP002)


  • OG: 1.052
  • FG: 1.016
  • ABV: 4.7%


  • Malts: meets all the guidelines for base and specialty malts as well as adjuncts.
  • Hops: the choice of hops are all traditional English varieties.
  • Yeast: Gorden stresses how the WPL002 yeast is a ‘wonderful choice for cask-conditioning’ due to his experience with how quickly it settles out when left still and cold in the cask.
  • Statistics: the Starting Gravity is towards the bottom of the style guidelines whilst the Finishing Gravity is at the top of the FG range giving an alcohol content towards the lower end of the ABV range.

– Special Bitter –

Adding the grist to the Mash
Adding the grist to the Mash

Source: Wisdom for Home Brewers
Authors: Ted Bruning & Nigel Sadler

  • 10 Lbs Maris Otter pale malt
  • 19 oz Torrified Wheat
  • 14 oz Crystal 40L malt
  • 3.8 oz Chocolate malt
  • 14 oz white sugar
  • 1.0 oz Challenger hops (90 min)
  • 1.0 oz Progress hops (90 min)
  • 0.5 oz Fuggles hops (90 min)
  • 0.75 oz East Kent Golding hops (80 min)


  • OG: 1.056
  • FG: 1.010 (calculated)
  • ABV: 6%


  • Malts: most of the grains meet the guidelines though instead of using Black Patent malt for color adjustment the recipe uses Chocolate malt.
  • Hops: the choice of hops are all traditional English varieties.
  • Yeast: not specified within the recipe so a ‘characterful English yeast’ would need to be chosen by the brewer.
  • Statistics: the Starting Gravity is middle of the guidelines range and the Finishing Gravity is at the bottom of the FG range giving an alcohol content towards the top of the ABV range.


The recipe chosen for brewing this batch of Strong Bitter was the Special Bitter and although this sounds more like the old name for the Best Bitter style the size of this beer with regards to Original Gravity and final ABV is within the Strong Bitter beer style. The reason for this choice is primarily down to wanting to try a recipe from the Wisdom for Home Brewers book which is written by two people from the UK beer brewing scene and is in a book that I recently reviewed (see here).

Recirculating the mash
Recirculating the mash

The other two recipes both look very good with the Pride Of Warwick being a tribute to Fuller’s ESB which is a great beer whether it is drunk on draft in the London area or purchased in its export version as a bottled beer within the USA. Old Speckled Hen is a very popular beer from the East of England and the above clone recipe gives homebrewers the opportunity to replicate this brew.

The Special Bitter recipe did not specify a choice of yeast so I decided to go with the London Ale yeast (Wyeast 1028) which has ‘a rich mineral profile that is bold and crisp with some fruitiness’ according to the Wyeast website. One change was needed to the recipe and that was to substitute East Kent Goldings hops for Progress as I could not find the latter and went with this choice as it is also used as an 80 minute addition. The effect of this change was to lower the overall IBU’s from 43 to 40 but still remain within the style guidelines. Instead of white sugar I also opted for organic sugar which was less refined.

Due to the recipe not quoting all the vital statistics I decided to put the details into my BeerSmith software and here are the resulting vital statistics:

  • OG: 1.056
  • FG: 1.011
  • ABV: 6.0%
  • Bitterness: 40 IBUs
  • Color: 11.9 SRM
Measuring the Original Gravity (OG)
Measuring the Original Gravity (OG)

The 5 gallon batch of beer was brewed on my new Brew-Boss Electric Brewing system which uses the Brew In A Bag (BIAB) technique – please click here to see how the first brewing session went with this new setup.

The steps used included:

  • Charcoal filtering the borough water and leaving it to stand overnight in order to vent off the chlorine.
  • Measuring out and milling the grains, also measuring out the hops and irish moss.
  • Sterilizing the fermentation equipment.
  • Heating the strike water to 153 deg F before mashing-in (adding the grist to the hot water).
  • Mashing for 90 mins at 151 deg F so the starches convert into sugars.
  • Raising the temperature to 168 deg F to mash-out and stop enzymatic activity i.e. halt the conversion of starches to sugars.
  • Boiling for 10 mins to allow time for the hot break to clear.
  • Continue boiling for 90 mins with bittering hop additions at 90 & 80 mins.
  • Adding Irish Moss at 15 mins to help clear the beer.
  • A yeast starter was prepared comprising of 8 oz of DME (Dry Malt Extract) in two liters of water and placed in a flask on a stir plate together with one packet of yeast.
  • Yeast nutrient was added to the wort once it had been cooled.
  • Wort was aerated with Oxygen via a diffusing stone connected to an O2 tank with a regulator.
  • Yeast starter was decanted prior to pitching into the wort so that most of the spent wort did not go into the beer.
  • Primary fermentation was at 63 deg F for one week in a temperature controlled freezer.
  • The beer was racked off the trub (sediment) into the secondary fermenter and held at 63 deg F for two weeks.
  • Beer was force carbonated to 2.3 volumes of CO2 after cooling the beer to 36 deg F.


Active fermentation
Active fermentation

According to the style guidelines a Strong Bitter should have the following characteristics:

  • Appearance: Light amber to deep copper color. Good to brilliant clarity. Low to moderate white to off-white head. A low head is acceptable when carbonation is also low.
  • Aroma: Hop aroma moderately-high to moderately-low, typically with a floral, earthy, resiny, and/or fruity character. Medium to medium-high malt aroma, often with a low to moderate caramel component. Medium-low to medium-high fruity esters. Generally no diacetyl, although very low levels are allowed.
  • Flavor: Medium to medium-high bitterness with supporting malt flavors evident. The malt profile is typically bready, biscuity, nutty, or lightly toasty, and normally has a moderately low to moderate caramel or toffee flavor. Hop flavor moderate to moderately high, typically with a floral, earthy, resiny, and/or fruity character. Hop bitterness and flavor should be noticeable, but should not totally dominate malt flavors. Moderately-low to high fruity esters. Optionally may have low amounts of alcohol. Medium-dry to dry finish. Generally no diacetyl, although very low levels are allowed.
  • Mouth-feel: Medium-light to medium-full body. Low to moderate carbonation, although bottled versions will be higher. Stronger versions may have a slight alcohol warmth but this character should not be too high.
  • Overall: An average-strength to moderately-strong English bitter ale. The balance may be fairly even between malt and hops to somewhat bitter. Drinkability is a critical component of the style. A rather broad style that allows for considerable interpretation by the brewer.

A common factor with all these sample recipes is the focus on only using UK malts and where possible English Ale yeasts to ensure authenticity. Gordon Strong goes one stage further in his book by cask conditioning this beer, rather than force carbonating it in a keg or bottle conditioning it, and thus making it a ‘Real Ale’ that CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) would be proud of.

How did my batch of Strong Bitter turn out?

Sampling the Special Bitter
Sampling the Special Bitter

The Original Gravity overshot the target of 1.056 and in fact went beyond the top of the range for the style which is 1.064 resulting in a higher alcohol content that was also above the range for the style. This overshooting is most likely because I am still honing in my new electric brewing system. Here are the actual vital statistics:

  • OG: 1.064
  • FG: 1.012
  • ABV: 6.8%
  • Bitterness: 40 IBUs
  • Color: 11.9 SRM

The tasting notes are as follows:

Dark amber in color with a cream head and a slight chill haze. A fruity and malty aroma. Flavor is malty, nutty with some caramel and hoppiness. Moderate carbonation with a medium body, slightly bitter after-taste and a dry finish.

Overall I am happy with how this beer turned out though a lower alcohol content would have made it more sessionable but it does have plenty of flavor and a good mouth-feel. I will also need to focus on why it has a chill haze, perhaps the mashing is in need of a protein rest? One to brew again and hit the numbers next time plus try find Progress hops to use.

What’s Next?

In my next article in this series I will be examining Brewing an Irish Red Ale which is in the ‘Irish Beer’ category so please check back for that article to be published.

Brew-BossThis article is made possible by Brew-Boss, to find out more about Electric Brewing systems and configuration options offered by Brew-Boss please click on their logo to check them out.

Comments or questions? If you have any comments or questions on this article please do not hesitate to leave them below.

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