English Beer Low ABV Recipe

This one goes down easy.

Ben's Best Bitter • 4.5% ABV • 35 IBU
Ben’s Best Bitter – 4.5% ABV – 35 IBU

I know, I know. I wrote in my introduction that I don’t do classic styles. But, well… there’s an exception to every rule. And anyway, it’s not that I don’t do them, it’s just that I have a tendency to throw fruit and spices into them, ferment them with the wrong yeast, or otherwise mistreat them. I have a lot of respect for classic styles, I just don’t want to spend my time recreating them when others already do it so well.

However, my girlfriend’s dad (Ron) is a devotee of the classic English ales (along with Czech and German lagers)—a taste he picked up while serving abroad back in the ’70s. So, every few batches, I brew something I know he’ll like.

Case in point: this best bitter.

It wasn’t supposed to be a best bitter. I was aiming for an ESB (not technically a real style!), but this was my first brew on a new system and I missed my gravity pretty badly. Luckily, bitters are a flexible bunch. ESBs sit at the top, followed by best bitters and ordinary bitters. They’re all basically the same, conceptually, just less and less potent as you drop down. So if your batch comes out less potent than you wanted, just bump it down a class! Thus, my ESB became a best bitter. C’est la vie!

What’s in it?

The Grain

  • 5 lb Maris Otter (Fawcett)
  • 0.4 lb Maris Otter Crystal 70-80L (Bairds)
  • 0.4 lb Crystal Malt I, 42-48L (Fawcett)

The Hops

  • 14g Willamette [5.5% AA] @ 60
  • 10g Willamette @ 30
  • 10g Willamette @ 10
  • 7g Willamette @ FO

The Rest

  • Yeast: Wyeast 1968 London ESB Ale (0.75L starter)
  • Water: Distilled/RO + 2.9g gypsum & 1.7g calcium chloride
  • Mash: 60 minutes at 154F
  • Boil: 60 minutes
  • OG: 1.046
  • FG: 1.013
  • ABV: 4.5%

How’d it go?

Well, like I said, new system, new location. That’s gonna throw you a few curveballs.

In this case, the new system was my Robobrew V3 with a custom-sized Wilserbrewer BIAB bag, and the new location was Bend, Oregon. If you’re not familiar with the Robobrew, it’s basically a cheap-ass Grainfather, a giant coffee urn with an oversized heating element and a rudimentary temperature controller. It’s not designed for BIAB, but it works well enough. And if you’re not familiar with Bend, it’s at about 3,600 feet, which I failed to take into consideration before I got down to brewing.

The result? My boil wasn’t nearly as vigorous as I expected, so I ended up with way too much wort. Not a big problem, since I tend to like session beers anyway.

Aside from that, there were no major dramas. I hadn’t yet insulated my Robobrew, so the heating element caused a few wild temperature swings during the mash. For my next brew I gave it three layers of Reflectix and a custom-made hat, though.

How’s it taste?

Pretty good, I’d say. I haven’t been able to enjoy very many best bitters, since I’ve never been to England and American brewers seem hesitant to produce low-alcohol beers that don’t taste like water. I’ve had Fuller’s ESB, which is what I was aiming to replicate here, and it’s no surprise that this comes across like a slightly weaker take on that idea.

Appearance: It’s a gorgeous honey gold color, fairly hazy but not enough to make the hazebois cream. Pours with a beautiful, pillowy head that dissipates fairly quickly, but leaves lacing and a permanent ring of foam around the edges of the glass.

Aroma: Willamette is reputedly earthy, spicy, and herbal, and I definitely get that here… along with maybe the slightest touch of onion. The Maris Otter (and Maris Otter Crystal) lend a nice nutty note and a hint of sweetness. Overall, it’s not a super strong nose.

Taste: It’s probably unsurprising since the crystal malts only make up about 14% of the grain bill, but there’s not a lot of toffee or caramel flavor to this beer. It’s mostly a nutty, biscuity (in the American sense) graininess, undercut by the earthiness of the hops. Sweet, but sweet like bread, not cake. The bitterness is just about perfect—definitely present, but not assertive as it would be in an equivalent American style. If I were trying to wean someone off of Bud Light, this is what I’d give them.

Mouthfeel: Mashing at 154 seems to have done the trick, giving this beer a nicely rounded finish despite the 2:1 sulfate to chloride ratio. I intentionally carbed it a little lower than usual—around 2 vols—which also helps in that department. This is one of the higher FGs I’ve ever had, and the residual sweetness is also pretty obvious on the tongue, giving the beer a lasting finish.

Would I brew it again?

Yep, definitely. Once I have a kegging setup, something in this ABV and IBU ballpark is going to be on tap at all times. It won’t always be an English bitter, but once in a while wouldn’t hurt.

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