The Times newspaper in London has recently completed the magnificent task of digitising its entire run of issues back to 1785, meaning every word, including all the advertisements, is now electronically searchable. This is a tremendous boon to historians, who will be greatly helped in finding the answers to many of the vexed historical questions of today, such as: is pale ale really a different drink from draught bitter?
Your man with his tent erected in the middle of the “pale ale and bitter are different styles” camp is Britain’s Leading Beer Writer™. In the latest edition of Beers of the World magazine, in a series of articles on beer styles, himself writes:
Let us begin by stating what pale ale is not. It’s not IPA – India Pale Ale – neither is it bitter. Pale ale stands between the two … Bitter, as we shall see later in the series, is an early 20th century beer, brewed to meet the demands of the new “tied pubs” of large brewers who wanted a draught “running beer” that could be served after only a few days of cellar conditioning.
However, the evidence points overwhelmingly towards pale ale and bitter being regarded as synonyms by both the public and brewers from the time the terms first appeared. (I won’t comment on Roger’s second claim, that 20th century bitter was a new invention that needed only a few days of cellar conditioning, until his promised piece on the history of bitter comes out).
As far as I know, the Times historical database isn’t open yet to the public, so I can’t point you to a URL, but it’s available on the News International intranet. My peripatetic career as a journeyman journalist is currently taking me inside the ramparts at Times House, however, and in slack moments between helping to produce editions of the next day’s paper (and correcting reporters’ errors, like the prat who thought the Goodwin Sands were “in” Kent) I’ve been running searches on the archive. The very first mention of the term “bitter beer” in The Times comes on September 5 1842, in a small advertisement for “Ashby’s Australian Pale Ale”, which “is the most pleasant of all the different sorts of bitter beer that we have ever tasted,” according to a newspaper quoted in the ad. So the first time we find bitter beer being mentioned, it is as a synonym for pale ale.
Ashby’s Australian Pale Ale was made by the Quaker-founded Ashby’s brewery in Staines, Middlesex, a few miles up the Thames from London. A later advertisement, from the following year, showed Ashby’s had been exporting it to “the Australian colonies” since 1829 and the beer “resembles the East India pale ale in flavour and colour, with rather more body.” The ads appeared alongside others for “Bass’s Pale Ale, as prepared for India”, “Hodgson and Abbott’s pale ale” (Hodgson’s of Bow, of course, being the first earliest brewer to export become well-known for exporting a pale ale to India), and “Allsopp’s East India pale ale, as prepared for India”. This last ad says:
The reputation which ALLSOPP’S PALE ALE has obtained in the Eastern and British colonial markets will be best shown by a reference to the price current, and the high esteem in which it is held by the faculty [that is, medical faculty] in this country …
all indicating, I would suggest, that India Pale Ale was seen as merely a subset of pale ale, the kind “as prepared for India” rather than something completely different.
The best evidence for the idea that brewers, and the public, regarded pale ale and bitter beer as interchangeable synonyms comes with the “great strychnine libel” of 1852. In March that year a French Professor, Monsieur Payen, claimed that large amounts of strychnine were being exported from France to England for use instead of hops in giving beer a bitter flavour. The libel was repeated in an English medical journal, the Medical Times and Gazette, which wrote:
It is just now the fashion to believe that bitter beer is the best stomachic that was ever invented … That the bitterness of the best kind of ‘pale ale’ is given simply by an excess of hops or camomile we firmly believe [but] large quantities of strychnine have been made in Paris… to be intended for exportation to England, in order to fabricate bitter beer.
A letter appeared in The Times on March 29 under the heading “Bitter Beer”, calling the wider public’s attention to the French claim. This was answered by a broadside from the brewers intended to bring down M Payen’s canard, including a letter the next day from Michael Thomas Bass, head of one of Burton upon Trent’s biggest brewers, and one of the biggest exporters of IPA. Bass said:
When a letter is admitted into The Times, warning the public that they may be imbibing the most subtle and deadly poison while they are only dreaming of the pleasures of “bitter beer”, I may, perhaps, be pardoned as one of the brewers of that favourite beverage if I ask your permission to notice what the Spectator in its last number called a “Paris Fable of Pale Ale” … Why, Sir, India would long ago have been depopulated of its European inhabitants had there been anything pernicious in pale ale. Permit me to add that “pale ale” has won the public favour by means of a perfectly “free trade” and that we, and our eminent and respected competitors, only hope to maintain that favour by contending with each other by producing a beverage as palatable as it is possible to obtain from malt, hops, and the purest water.
Bass’s letter makes no distinction between bitter beer, pale ale, and the pale ale drunk in India. A follow-up story published in The Times on May 12 1852 under the heading “Alleged adulteration of pale ales by strychnine” gave details of a report commissioned from two professors of chemistry in England by Henry Allsopp, head of another big Burton upon Trent brewer, and said:
… the charge of adulteration is totally unfounded, and the bitter beer drinker may dismiss all fears of being poisoned some day while quietly enjoying his favourite beverage.
Once again pale ale and bitter beer are treated as synonyms, as they are in an advertisement in The Times in November 1855 which says:
EAST INDIA PALE ALE – To be SOLD, about 150 barrels of sound and full-flavoured BURTON BITTER BEER of last season’s brewing and in prime condition, either for bottling or present use.
While this proves, I think, that from the beginning of the appearance of the term “bitter beer” around the start of the 1840s it was regarded as a synonym for pale ale, and India Pale Ale was just a type of pale ale or bitter beer “as prepared for India” rather than something totally different, it does not prevent the possibility that in the 20th century bitter became divorced from pale ale as a style. However, in 1948 the London brewer Whitbread published a book called The Brewer’s Art which said:
“In this country there are four chief types of beer to-day: pale ale, mild ale, stout and Burton. Pale ale … is sold both as draught beer (“bitter”) and in bottle. India Pale Ale was the name originally given to a fine pale ale made for export to troops in India … Among the cheaper and therefore weaker pale ales are light ales and family ales.
Whitbread’s stance, therefore, was just the same as Michael Thomas Bass’s nearly 100 years before: bitter is just another word for pale ale.