A few months ago I was sitting at Gritty McDuff’s, contemplating my pint of Best Bitter. Best Bitter is a type of pale ale, generally in the session range, but a little more amped than the style known as ordinary bitter. The beer was great, as it has been since 1988, but I started to ponder the name: Is it possible for best to become even better?
My thoughts drifted back to an article about using bitters with beer. If that sounds obscene, pardon me. I understand. It took me decades to embrace additives in beer. But woodruff syrup in Berliner Weisse is surprisingly good. Lime in Corona seems essential. Swirling a splash of whisky in the glass before pouring a Wee Heavy is a damn fine idea. Then again, Germans put Coca-Cola in beer, and that’s unnatural, maybe even immoral. Would bitters and beer be unacceptably freakish or subtly delicious?
Eager for guidance, I turned to Steve Corman. When it comes to bitters, there’s no higher authority than Steve, who bills himself as “the Bitterest Man in the World.”
Steve and his wife, Johanna Johnson Corman, founded Vena’s Fizz House in 2013. Initially conceived as a non-alcoholic cocktail lounge, Vena’s Old Port location evolved into a retail shop, mixology classroom and full-range bar. In 2019, they began producing their own line of bitters when Nolan Stewart, founder of Coastal Root Bitters, sold his company to them. Vena’s now offers 11 varieties of its own bitters and about 100 others by a couple dozen different companies. So yeah, Steve and Johanna know bitters.
Steve was in the midst of packing up their Portland shop and moving everything to their production space in Westbrook (the couple are currently scouting new locations for the Fizz House’s rebirth), but he was eager to help answer my questions. He explained that bitters (those worth using) have multiple levels of flavor. Vena’s uses 10 or so ingredients per style to create these complex, layered concoctions.
All bitters begin with gentian root, the same plant that flavors Moxie, but other ingredients range from charred cedar to ancho chile pepper to cinnamon. Some ingredients will be evident, but more will enhance the overall taste experience without expressing their own flavors.
I asked Steve if anything is sourced locally. Vena’s relies on some out-of-state suppliers, but also gets ingredients from Maine companies. The base alcohol for the bitters is 151 proof rum from Sebago Lake Distillery. The Lapsang Souchong tea used in the Smoke Bitters is from The Little Red Cup Tea Co., in Brunswick, and Coffee By Design’s Vienna Roast beans are in the Coffee Bitters. The Cormans forage their own white pine and northern spruce to make the Maine Pine Bitters.
I selected six really good beers, from different breweries and of different styles, and asked Steve and Johanna to try to enhance them with bitters. Steve’s years as a science teacher guided the controlled experiments that followed. And the results are:
- Marshall Wharf’s Ace Hole American pale ale paired best with Vena’s Woodland Bitters, which feature charred cedar, toasted oak, and schisandra berry.
- Atlantic Brewing Company’s Thunder Hole nut brown ale paired best with Vena’s Coffee Bitters, which also have chicory, cacao nibs and anise.
- Airline Brewing Company’s English Pub Ale paired best with Vena’s Grove Bitters, flavored with charred grapefruit peel, lemon verbena, hops and rosemary.
- Flight Deck Brewing’s Remove Before Flight red ale paired best with Vena’s Aromatic Bitters, which include sarsaparilla, cardamon, clove and wormwood.
- Fogtown Brewing’s Foglight Maine Pilsner paired best with Vena’s Fiesta Bitters, a variety with tamarind, white sage, licorice root and orange peel.
- Oxbow’s Newcastle Morning, a blend of fresh saison and barrel-aged farmhouse ale, also paired best with the Fiesta Bitters.
Encouraged, I ordered a fistful of Vena’s Itty Bitters samplers from their website and picked up a four-pack of Bunker Brewing’s Chick-A-Dee English-style bitter ale. Canned with nitrogen for a softer mouthfeel, Chick-A-Dee was an ideal base from which to explore the range of flavors. And just as Steve had said, the bitters didn’t add flavor so much as they opened up flavors already in the beer.
So, indeed, even the best Best Bitter can be even better with bitters.
Tom Major will be bitter if you don’t contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.