However, bitters are a diverse breed. Some bitters are really quite sweet - particularly in Scotland but also the West Midlands where ales like Bathams, Holdens and Enville have distinct honey/fruity characters (and gorgeous beers they are too). The growth area in recent times has been hoppy beers. Now it's hops that give beer its bitterness but they also impart floral, aromatic flavours and it's the latter which have been accentuated, especially in the new breed of "golden ales". A beer like Oakham JHB, for instance, is packed full of the most wonderful hop aromas and tastes but its certainly not a bitter ale.
What started me ruminating on this was a recent trip to Belgium where I encountered an ale from the De Ranke brewery called XX bitter. Tim Webb's Belgium Good Beer Guide describes it as an "intensely bitter pale ale with a hop recipe that punches like Lennox Lewis". Tim is not wrong! Here we have a beer which is truly, madly, mouth-puckeringly bitter, almost to the exclusion of any other taste. I thought it was just wonderful - though one bottle was quite enough. Definitely one for the love-or-hate category and, from any rational standpoint, a hopelessly unbalanced brew. But it did bring home to me how rare it is to taste true bitterness these days in a British beer.
In my early beer-drinking days, the most renowned bitter beer was Holts from Manchester. Back then (the early 1980s) a CAMRA guide said of it "the biting flavour is uncomprisingly acerbic, but the taste, once acquired, can become pleasantly addictive". It was also unbelievably cheap! Holts is still a fine beer but the consensus is that over the years it has lost some of its edge - though it remains, essentially, a bitter ale. Beyond Holts, it's difficult to identify beers where bitterness is still the predominant characteristic. Some ales which once met the description have either become more balanced (Wells Eagle, Shepherd Neame Master Brew Bitter, Nethergate Suffolk County) or plain bland (Boddingtons Bitter). Others like Yates and Jackson and Shipstones have gone to the brewery in the sky.
What's a little disappointing is that few of the new breed of microbrewers seem interested in producing bitter beers. Buffy's Bitter from Norfolk is an exception, as is Verulam IPA from St Albans though that brewery is in the process of changing hands. So, come on you brewers, make me bitter!