Friday, 18 April 2008

Beer O'Clock: The not so bitter taste of bitter

Your regular Friday Beer O'Clock post comes to you this week from SOBA's Stu. 

A few weeks back I crowded in to The Opera House, with what seemed like the majority of Wellington’s beautiful people (and at least half of Split Enz), to see American rock band Wilco play a fantastic two-hour set. In the weeks leading up to the gig – probably my most anticipated gig ever – I coughed and gagged at the nonsensical terms “alt-country” and “the American Radiohead”. It got me thinking about pigeon-holes, stereotypes, branding, categorisation… basically what this article comes down too, each and every week.

I’ll talk more about the wider concept of categorisation at the end of this beer style series but, for today, I want to relate it to the not so bitter taste of ‘bitter’ – the most misleading term in all of beer (besides, perhaps, the false claims of ‘ale’ used by marketing companies masquerading as breweries).

Bitter is an interesting term, with a history far too long and complex to give it any real justice here (though a reasonable start can be made at wiki). It’s an interesting term because it describes a taste sensation that would generally be described as least favourite. Strangely, it is used by some breweries to describe beers that are not very bitter at all, while it is carefully avoided by other brewers with intensely bitter beers. Indeed, “bitter” is such an unpopular term that the good folk at BJCP have euphemistically described the bitter category ‘English Pale Ale’ (even though every style of beer within the category is one form or other of ‘bitter’).

Bitter is not actually all that bitter. The BJCP style guide describes it perfectly in these few words: Drinkability is a critical component of the style. It should always be well-balanced, with neither malt or hop dominating. An excellent bitter, at 3%, is the perfect drink for the thirsty amongst us but equally, at 6+%, can be something for the more contemplative sessions.

One of the fun things about bitters is the fantastic names that breweries have given them (something a lot of New Zealand breweries – with their “premium” ideals – seem a little scared of). Broadside, Formidable, London Pride, Speculation, Landlord and Bombardier are some of the more well-known bitters, with Pridenjoy, Workie Ticket, Fine Soft Day, Granny Wouldn’t Like It and Sneck Lifter some of the lesser-known but more imaginatively named beers.

In the local market we have ‘Bookbinder’, from Emerson’s Brewery, as an excellent – very new-world – interpretation of they style (with reasonably good availability), while two or three bitters, of varying strengths and of the very highest quality, are always available on the handpumps of Galbraith’s Ale House and The Twisted Hop (some very good names amongst them too).

Anyway, as for Wilco, they’ve been nowhere near anything I’d call “alt-country” for their last 10 years (or four albums, if you count in that base). And as for the Radiohead comparison – a band with its head so far up its own arse that I can only hear a muffled café-style resonance from out here – there’s really very little to compare.

As for bitter, it is a fantastic drink. There have been millions of stories shared over a pint, and there are thousands of reasons to recommend it. I just implore you all to take a step on the journey towards exploring it.

Slainte mhath, Stu


  1. Aaaah, Bookbinder. My favourite tap beer in the world. Damn you PC, for posting this up so far from knock-off time. I'll be salivating for hours now.


  2. I hope you have a Bookie tap close at hand, when the close-of-day whistle blows.

    It's virtually all over Wellington these days. A far cry from the days when Tupelo was my oasis in a desert of NZ draughts...

  3. Southern Cross is the destination of choice tonight, with it's ready supply of Bookbinder. Tupelo was my first experience of Bookbinder as well! I still miss that place, and it's cheesy velvet paintings.

    Down-tools in T-minus 1 hour and counting...


  4. In the days that I was a regular there it was 70's posters of semi-naked woman, including one stunner in a hammock.

    Last time I went in it appeared to be on the rise again... a nice den, just off the beaten track.


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