By Martyn Cornell
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Extra info for Amber, Gold & Black: The History of Britain’s Great Beers
They lifted only briefly around 1991–93, when the UK government’s ‘guest beer’ orders, designed to increase competition, forced the national brewers to open up the bar-tops in their then massive pub estates to other brewers’ beers. Since 1995 draught bitter has been only the second-best selling beer in the country; though for all that, perhaps the most loved by those who drink it. The best bitter beers leave the drinker satisfied and yet still happy to have more. The harmony of complex flavours that the finest examples contain, even at comparatively low alcoholic strengths, is one of Britain’s greatest contributions to bibulous pleasure.
The term ‘bitter’ never crossed the Atlantic as the name of a local-brewed beer style, perhaps because it came into being after the time of maximum English immigration to North America, though plenty of brewers in Canada and the New England states brewed pale ales for their customers. It occurs, however, in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, where emigration from Britain was strong during the 1840s and 1850s, a time when the word was coming into use in British pubs. In 1868, in the recently founded town of Newcastle, Natal, William Peel’s Umlaas brewery, a direct ancestor of the later South African Breweries, was selling ‘Pale Bitter Ale’ at 2s a gallon.
By the end of the twentieth century only one brewer was still regularly using the ‘dropping’ system, Brakspear’s of Henley, in Oxfordshire, though when that brewery closed in 2002 its equipment and the ‘dropping’ system, was recreated at the Wychwood brewery in Witney, Oxfordshire to carry on brewing Brakspear beers. Although pale bitter ales were increasingly popular from the 1850s, especially among the middle classes, they were still a minority taste, in part because they were more expensive.