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Brewhouse Blog 9- IPA, Bitter, Best, Premium or Strong?! What's the difference?

Can’t help but think that maybe I am a bit of a pedant and maybe, just maybe that goes with the territory of being a brewer. My predecessor here at Uley Brewery had an unswerving dedication to attention to detail and I think that it’s rubbed off on me and as a result we are the better for it.

My disposition towards accuracy takes many forms including the description of beer. If for you a beer is merely a brown liquid that you neck with impunity then it clearly hasn’t really touched a spot and I think a good beer deserves to be savoured. Colour will tell you a lot about a beer. The spectrum is broadly described thus: Straw, Golden, Amber, Copper, Red, Ruby and Dark. A brewers rainbow! Here at Uley the closest we brewed to a straw coloured beer was Hogshead , a very pale Pale Ale. We do two Golden beers: Uley Pale and Pigs Ear. Uley Bitter is Amber, Taverner is a classic Copper. And Old Spot, Ruby. Line them up on a tasting board and you can see the distinction between each beer. All have their own recipe and each its own flavour but they have one thing in common the long, lingering finish so distinct in a Uley beer.

So, what is ‘a bitter’, ‘best bitter’, ‘premium bitter,’ ‘strong beer’? Well here is the rule of thumb as we understand it here. Anything below 3.8% abv. Is classed as a bitter (most milds are at the lower end on the abv line, but that’s another story). Between 3.8% and 4.2% you have Best Bitters, 4.3% to 4.7% are premium bitters and anything above 4.8% is considered Strong – until you get into Barley Wine territory and that’s yet another story.

Told you that to tell you this. When I see a pump clip that says premium bitter on it and it’s 3.8% abv it drives me mad – it’s a best bitter for crying out loud! And don’t get me started on a ‘session IPA’ at 3.7% . That’s a grade one, oven ready oxymoron. An IPA is a specific beer type defined by the fact that it is heavily hopped and has an abv of at least 5%. (Actually a purist would say 5.2!). It was developed to survive the long journey by sea to India in the early 19th century. It made sense to make a highly hopped and high gravity beer as both hops and alcohol are preservatives.

And so, to finish, a little Uley Brewery secret. Have we ever made an IPA? Well yes, once and it was called ‘Silk Purse’. And like many good things it came from a mistake! I was brewing a Pigs Ear and barreling up a Uley Bitter on the same day. Multi tasking is never a great idea on a brewing day. I have two beers in my head and it’s only at the end of the day when I’m digging out the hops from the bottom of the copper that I realize that I’m counting too many shovelfuls of spent hops. I’ve brewed a Pigs Ear and hopped for a Uley Bitter which has twice the hop of Pigs Ear. And believe you me, Pigs Ear drinkers would notice! So we made a one-off IPA instead and it was well received. Who says that you cannot make a silk purse from a pig’s ear? I know, I know, the expression mentions a 'Sows Ear' But hey! Who wants to be pedantic.