I got a question from my father via Facebook.  It read:

So, Esteemed Malted One, why do they call it bitter?”

After all, a “bitter” isn’t particularly bitter compared to other beers.  Bitters are often described as a beer style fairly balanced between malt and hops. In my opinion, I find them on the maltier side, very smooth, and relatively creamy.  That’s coming from a perspective of someone who drinks mostly hoppier (more bitter) beers, and, when I do go for something maltier, it’s usually a brown ale or a porter (see the story behind the name).

That’s not to say the bitters aren’t necessarily well hopped.  Bitters can often have a good amount of hops in them, but generally hops that accentuate fruiter or more floral tastes and smells than hops that give bitterness.

So why is  the beer style called bitter?

The short answer is, I don’t know.  What I do know is:

  • Bitter is a type of pale ale, but different in that it’s a bit maltier, smoother, and, ironically, often less bitter.  Bitters are often a hint darker/more amber than a typical pale ale;
  • Some will use the term “bitter” and “pale ale” interchangeably;
  • There are certain mass produced beers out there with “bitter” in the name, but they’re actually lagers;
  • I assumed there was some old English evolution of beer reason for the origin of the name;
  • Bitter is very tasty style of beer.

After doing some reading on the subject, I wasn’t able to find anything conclusive.  However, I was able to piece some things together which affirmed some of my assumptions and general knowledge that one picks up at the pub.

Firstly, Wikipedia has a decent, albeit short, break down on bitter which is worth a read.

Anyway, piecing together some research, there’s still not a solid answer.  The following is the sum of speculation and educated assumptions, so please correct me if I’m wrong.

Anyway, the best I could gather, is the term simply comes from the general evolution of beer and language, as originally suspected. 18th century beer classifications generally separated things between “beer” and “ale”: beer being stronger and more heavily hopped, ale being lighter.  By the 19th century, things had evolved and pale ale got lumped into “bitter beers” in comparison to other darker ales, porters, and stouts.

So here’s my main assumption – this is when the Brits started referring to pale ale as a “bitter,” as yes, the beer was more bitter than a porter or a dark ale.

However, breweries continued to use the term “pale ale,” and “bitter” was more just slang used around the pub.  As beers evolved, the name stuck.

To me, bitter is a traditional English style of beer, while pale ale is its sibling that was allowed to leave and develop elsewhere.  So pale ale developed into a distinct form of beer while bitter was left behind.  While the name was originally slang, it stuck, and, in reality, it’s just a traditional English pale ale.


P.S. Yes, my father called me Esteemed Malted One.  I kind of like it…

If you enjoyed learning about porter, check out our other articles on beer naming conventions.