We all know about the effect of the Reinheitsgebot on German lagers. But let's take British Bitters. By American standards, these are some light, wimpy beers. An Ordinary bitter clocks in around 3.7% ABV, Standard bitters around 4.2% and the mighty ESB or Special Bitters around 5%. This can lead to warnings from well-intentioned publicans of "Careful with that one, it's strong!" Despite the fact that most of our familiar NW "session" beers are at least as strong or stronger. As so often happens in history, the reason for this has to do with Victorian England.
In 1880 the Free Mash Tun Act shifted beer taxes from a tax on individual ingredients (malt and hops), to a beer tax based solely on the original gravity of the beer. Beers above 1.057 original gravity were taxed more highly than those with lower gravities. One interesting side effect of this is that the tax and regulations didn't care where that extract came from, so the use of sugars (treacle and invert sugar, for example) and cereals, like corn, increased dramatically. Hence the presence of Lyle's Golden Syrup in many homebrew recipes.
But the most important impact of this law is that, as so often happens, vice taxes tend to rise. The original 1880 tax rate was not that heavy, and beers averaged around 1.055. But by the 1920's, to help pay for the Great War, taxes were very high indeed. At that time Bass is reported to have been spending about 53% of its total production costs in taxes! The trend only continued. On top of the increased tax rate, the 1.057 baseline from 1880 was dropped to 1.037 by 1950. So the incentive was to brew weaker beers, that turned around quickly. IPAs and Old Ales went nearly extinct. Fortunately, since then tax burdens have been relaxed a little and the CAMRA/Craft Brew movement has helped increase demand for more expensive, stronger beers. For more on the remarkable history of British Pale Ales check out Foster's Pale Ale, 1999.
So Americans think of British Ales as low-alcohol, warm, flat, and fruity. But is this a bad thing? For a house beer, absolutely not!
RECIPE: ASBO BITTER
A decade ago in order to combat a wave of perceived lawlessness the UK introduced the ASBO or Anti-Social Behaviour Order, a civil order covering a variety of misdemeanors designed to combat, wait for it, anti-social behavior. Basically, it grants license to magistrates to spank yobbos for minor crimes and has become generally associated with juvenile delinquency.
I'd set out to make a little session Ordinary Bitter. Something pleasant and British, and about 1.037 O.G. so that I'd have a nice 3.7%ish house beer to quaff by the imperial pint and wake up hangover free the next morning. Well, as often happens, efficiency increases on small beers and I ended up with a mighty 1.041 O.G., moving it into Standard Bitter territory. Oooooooh! So in reflection of the warnings about the dangers of "strong" British beer, I decided that this was clearly liquid delinquency in a can. (Though here we just call that Four Loko)
10.5 gallons, All Grain
O.G. Est 1.038, O.G. Act 1.041
Est ABV: 3.7%, Est Act ABV 4.1%.
10 SRM, 30 IBU
Calculated at 75% efficiency, got about 80%. :/
- 12.5 lbs Gambrinus ESB malt
- 12 oz Crystal 120
- 4 oz Organic Crystal 40
- 8 oz Special Roast
- 4 oz Flaked Wheat
Mash Water Treatment: 4 gm Gypsum, 1 gm CaCl2. Boil Water Treatment: 9 gm Gypsum, 2 gm CaCl2. Should get the Ca up around 100, SO4 up around 130, and Cl around 30. Mash pH was 5.2.
90 min boil.
- 2.25 oz Willamette, leaf, 5.1% AA, at First Wort
- 0.75 oz Willamette @ 30 min.
- Whirlfloc tab @ 15.
- 1 oz Willamette @ flame out.
Cooled to 66 pretty quickly. Very clear wort.
Yeast choice is important for British Ales. For smaller bitters you want a yeast that will produce some fruity esters and has an attenuation on the lower end, around 70%. Otherwise it will be dry and over-bitter. So I pitched a quart of Danstar Windsor Ale yeast, saved off a previous brew. Fermenting in my 15 gallon conical, temp reading was 70 this morning. Luverly. I've had some good luck with this strain, but it doesn't floc well, and forms a top crop. Some careful racking and/or isinglass is in order.
Once it's done I'll probably cask condition it in kegs. British beers like cellar temperatures and there is an unheated room in my basement that's holding about 55. I'll just keep the kegs in there and hook up a cobra tap to it, goose it with co2 every now and again to push it.
Then let the reign of 4% fueled ASBO lawlessness begin!