Ask Kate About Beer: What Is A Bitter, And Why Isn't It Very Bitter?

Welcome to Ask Kate About Beer, in which The Takeout's resident beer expert answers everything you've ever wanted to know about beer but were too drunk to ask. Have a question? Shoot it to


Hey Kate,

At a bar the other day, I saw a brewery I like had a new beer on draft called a bitter. I tried it, and it was good, but it wasn't very bitter. At first, I wasn't sure I even got the right beer—are bitters supposed to be bitter?

Thanks,Jeff M.

Hey Jeff,

Beer style names can be confusing. A pale ale isn't necessarily super pale, and a cream ale has no cream in it.

So no, a bitter isn't tongue-scrapingly bitter, especially compared to the modern IPAs most Americans are used to. Further confusing matters, its cousin, the British mild, is quite mild.

Bitter is a British style of beer that's pretty rare here in the states. A few craft breweries make them, but it's certainly not a super popular style, which is too bad, because I think they're delicious. (Goose Island Honkers Ale, though not exactly like the bitters you'd find on draft in Britain, is one of the most widely available bitters in the U.S.) Also, the beer style shouldn't be confused with cocktail bitters. Stay with me!


Bitters were the original "session beer," meaning they were designed to be consumed in large quantities at the pub without getting you super wrecked. They generally come in around 3-4 percent alcohol by volume; most craft beers, for reference, are in the 4.5-7 percent range.

They're not only low-alcohol but also mellow, with neither the hops nor the malt adding too extreme a flavor. They generally have somewhere around 25-35 IBUs, or international bitterness units; an American IPA might have anywhere from 40 to 100. So while they finish dry and not too sweet, they're hardly the puckering bitter bombs you might expect from the name. (Long ago, it's speculated, British brewers used the name bitter to distinguish this slightly hoppier beer from milds and lagers, which had less hop character.)

Most modern bitters are softly malty, usually with a biscuity, nutty, or toasty quality. Like I said, they tend to finish dry, which some might say enhances the "bitterness" slightly. I personally find them more dry than bitter, but that's splitting hairs.

For those who aren't fans of bitter, way-hoppy IPAs, don't let the name scare you off from this tasty British style—I promise it will be less tongue-lashing than you'd expect. There aren't too many of them out there these days, so order one if you have the chance.