In a drinking landscape increasingly dominated by rare and unusual curiosities like super-hopped monsters, truffled pilsners, pumpkin pie porters and various other unspeakable experiments, it may be time to take a break from watching brewers trying to outdo one another with excessive flavors and revive a little interest in beer styles that are subtle, balanced and nuanced.
Enter the ESB, or Extra-Special Bitter, a style of beer developed in England that once had a promising presence in America that’s primed for a comeback.
In England, ESBs fall into a category known generically as “bitters.” They’ve been brewed and enjoyed in the UK for centuries as an alternative to mild and/or hoppy beers. Today, there are three kinds that fall under the designation, differentiated by strength and bitterness (measured in IBUs, or International Bitter Units). Standard or ordinary bitters come in around 3-4% ABV with a range of about 20-35 IBUs, special or "best" bitters land around 4% with 25-40 IBUs and the strongest of the bunch, the extra-special are typically 5-6% ABV with somewhere between 30-45 IBUs.
ESBs fill a unique gap that’s not otherwise represented stateside — they’re lighter than a Scotch-style Ale or Porter, but tend to be bigger-bodied than your typical American Amber with a richer texture, abundance of well-rounded malts and crisp, satisfyingly bitter finish. They’re also on the lower end of the strength spectrum, so you can drink several to warm the soul in a pub on a cold winter’s night without hurting too much the next morning.
To get the best introduction to the classic style, first reach for a Fuller’s, the standard English bitter, with its classic ribbon of caramel-like toffee sweetness, thick texture and rich malt flavor. Another UK favorite, Hobgoblin, is also worth checking out. The curious brew lands on the dry side of the ESB spectrum, with a butterscotch sweetness, fruity banana-like yeast esters and a pronounced bitter finish.
When it comes to American interpretations, no two breweries approach the style in the same manner recipe-wise and few that resemble the aforementioned English representations when compared directly side-by-side. Some American brewers throw in armfuls of hops, while others simply fall flat on all fronts and create what tastes more like an Amber than a true bitter. Here are five of the best brands to get a feel for this brew stateside.
- Yards Extra Special Ale (6% ABV, 44 IBU)
The closest to Fuller’s of the group, this Philadelphia brew has enormous body and excellent balance between dark coffee-like malts and subtle bitterness. It's straight-up bursting with warm, sweet flavors.
- Left Hand Sawtooth Ale (5.3% ABV, 27 IBU)
Ever-so-slightly floral and hoppy, Left Hand’s ESB stands up to its English forefathers with a nice toasty malt character and prominent bitterness. I’m not the only one who thinks it’s a solid brew: Sawtooth won a Gold at the World Beer Cup this past spring.
- Ska ESB (5.8 % ABV, 44 IBU)
The second canned style to come out of Colorado’s venerable brewery, this ESB has the most seamless integration of caramel-like malts and bitterness with a slightly fruity, fresh taste that’s well-rounded and sippable.
- Ballast Point Calico Amber Ale (5.5% ABV, 35 IBU)
This one's a bit of a curveball. Targeted towards American hoppy beer lovers who might need a gateway into the ESB style, it’s technically an Amber that’s “inspired” by the English category, so it has a much bigger hop character. Some classic ESB elements are present, like the fruity richness from the yeast and thick malt profile from four different malts.
- Anderson Valley Boont ESB (6.8% ABV, 60 IBU)
Another oddball, Anderson Valley’s ESB is modeled after ESBs created in England before the UK started to tax beer by gravity in the early 1800s. So the ABV percentage is stronger than most out there today and the body is much thinner as they tried to mimic the malt bill from that time period: British Golding hops and a traditional British ale yeast. It has a nice crisp, clean flavor with some white pepper and floral moments that make it interesting.
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