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Friday, July 22, 2016

ESB = Easy Sippin' Beers

ESB = Easy Sippin' Beer

As I'm sure you know, ESB actually stands for Extra Special Bitter, a name given to a class of English Pale Ales. English pale ales are often referred to as "bitters." But "bitter" is a bit of a misnomer as the beers tend to be anything but bitter. In fact they tend to fall solidly on the malty/sweet spectrum with the hops there to balance the taste. Most bitters fall somewhere between 20 and 40 IBUs, well below the bitterness level of, say, an American IPA which can clock in at anywhere from 60 to 80 IBUs (though the upper end tend to be reserved for double or imperial IPAs). 

The use of the appellation "ESB" is restricted in Great Britain to the Fuller Brewing Company, which owns the rights to it. However "Extra Special Bitter" can be freely used. The restriction does not apply in the US, so brewers are free to call their beers ESBs. So what makes a beer an Extra Special Bitter, versus a Best Bitter or a Premium Bitter or just plain Bitter? Alas, there are no hard and fast rules on this. In Britain brewers are allowed to use any of those terms pretty much as they see fit. Here in the States, ESB should signal a beer that is malt forward with varying levels of hop, generally floral British hops such as Goldings and Fuggles. Distinctive British yeast, which imbues the beer with an ester-y quality completes the picture.

What is the difference between an American Pale Ale and an ESB (a British Pale Ale)? Basically two factors: the hops and the yeast. American yeast strains add little to the taste of the beer, allowing the hops and the malt to take center stage, while British yeast has a fruity/banana quality that flags the beer as a British beer. While there are many strains of American hops, the classic American Pale Ale will have a kind of grapefruit/pine aroma and taste that will differ from its British cousin, which tends to be more floral/grassy in nature.

This month, the BOTB Guys combed the landscape for some ESBs (including Fuller's ESB), and found some brilliant brews. Luckily, ESBs tend to be low ABV so we didn't get too pissed or rat-arsed as we reviewed these fine beers.


The Beer Facts: BREWER: Queen City Brewing, Burlington, VT; STYLE: Extra Special Bitter; ABV: 4.2%; MALT: English Pale, Crystal; HOPS: Styrian Goldings, Kent Goldings; YEAST: West Yorkshire Ale Yeast

What the Brewer Says: "With a malt character that typifies the finest Yorkshire ales, this smoothly rounded Extra Special Bitter provides a depth of flavor, an aromatic fruitiness, and a flowery, hoppy elegance in the finish."


Pour: Minimal head with some lacing

Aroma: Bready

Body: Just shy of Medium

Taste: Malty, bready, biscuit-y, banana, cloves

Overall Impression: I Could Drink This

Comments: Pretty nice tasting beer; Smooth, typical British-style taste; It's got that banana/clove taste from the British yeast; Very much what you would expect from an ESB; Not overly carbonated, giving it that "real ale" vibe; Very smooth, bit of caramel, touch of hops but mostly malt, which you would expect; Good easy-drinker."


The Beer Facts: BREWER: Coniston Brewing Co., Coniston, Cumbria, GB; STYLE: Bitter; ABV: 4.2%; MALT: Maris Otter Pale, Crystal; HOPS: Challenger

What the Brewer Says: "It is, quite simply, a wonderful beer. It is exceedingly  pale...with just a hint of colour in its cheeks from the dash of crystal malt. It has a massive orange fruit aroma from the Challengers, balanced by biscuity malt."

Color: Copper

Pour: Minimal head with some lacing

Aroma: Malty, Pilsner-ish aroma

Body: Somewhat thin

Taste: Not big flavors, malt with hints of horehound and bit of orange

Overall Impression: I Could Drink This

Comments: "A bit of horehound, Cleaner smell and taste than Landlady; Kind of a watery mouthfeel; Light bodied, for sure; Little bit of toffee, malt, bread, but nothing big; Certainly easy to drink."


The Beer Facts: BREWER: Green Man Brewery, Ashville, NC; STYLE: Extra Special Bitter; ABV: 5.5%; IBUs: 32; British malts and hops.

What the Brewer Says: "A malty amber ale boasting rich toasted and caramel flavors, Green Man ESB is one of our award-winning signature brews. Our blend of authentic British malts and hops creates a nutty aroma, full body, and a sweet finish. Prepare yourself for a truly exceptional interpretation of a traditional English style."

Color: Walnut

Pour: Some lacing, little head

Aroma: Bready, malty

Body: Between light and medium

Taste: A bit sweet, malty, biscuit, nut and caramel

Overall Impression: Between I Could Drink This and Can't Get Enough

Comments: "Tastes as good as it is pretty; Typical ESB profile but not real bready nor taste of banana; Not a big taste - mellow; Wears well; A bigger beer; Sweetest so far; I really like the taste of this; Silky smooth; Like a Nut Brown but a bit hoppier; A pretty beer."


The Beer Facts: BREWER: Old Bust Head Brewing Co., Warrenton, Fauquier County, VA; STYLE: English Pale Ale; ABV: 5.6%; IBU: 21; SRM: 13; MALTS: Caramel; HOPS: Goldings, Fuggle, Cascade.

What the Brewer Says: "Brewed in the tradition of an English Pale Ale, but infused with the spirit of new American craft brews, our flagship beer is drinkable, balanced, and enjoyable year-round. Additions of Goldings, Fuggle,and Cascade hops provide our pale ale with the aroma of floral hop tones, as well as imparting a refreshing, clean bitterness. Our use of caramel malt in the grain bill balances out our generous hop additions, and provides the beer with a smooth and bready backbone. Perfectly balanced, it's our brewmaster's favorite beer."

Color: Amber, the color of maple syrup

Pour: Little more head than the previous, quickly dissipates.

Aroma: Bready/malty, reminiscent of date nut bread.

Body: A bit more than medium

Taste: Bread, Nut, Caramel with a bit more citrus hop presence

Overall Impression: Between I Could Drink This and Can't Get Enough

Comments: "Most distinctive taste so far - breaks away from the traditional ESB taste a bit; Nice beer; Not over-the-top with any of the tastes (banana, clove) you associate with British beers; Floral hops come through with a nice, balanced taste; Very pleasant beer, eminently drinkable; Bit of caramel and toffee give it a nice cozy taste."


The Beer Facts: BREWER: Redhook Brewery, Portsmouth and Woodinville, WA; STYLE: Extra Special Bitter; ABV: 5.8%; IBUs: 28; AWARDS: Gold Medal 2008 North American Beer Awards, Gold Medal 2009 Great American Beer Festival.

What the Brewer Says: "Brewed in the style of a traditional British ESB (Extra Special Bitter), we've been making ESB continuously since 1987, and it's now the benchmark for the Amber beer category. Despite having 'bitter' in its name, Redhook ESB is really not that bitter at all. This brew is all about the balance of caramel malt sweetness completed by spicy, citrusy hops."

Color: Light copper

Pour: Some lacing, slight head

Aroma: Not strong, a bit grassy

Body: A tad beyond Medium

Taste: Some sweetness, some hoppiness, some spice - very nice

Overall Impression: Between "I Could Drink This" and "Can't Get Enough"

Comments: "A little hops presence in there, I really like this a lot; Pretty classic British beer taste; Little bit of molasses taste in there; Kind of caramel, you get some hop at the end; A really pleasant beer, easy drinking; One of those beers you can just kick back and enjoy a few."


The Beer Facts: BREWER: Fullers, Smith and Turner PLC, London, UK; STYLE: Extra Special Bitter; ABV: 5.9%; MALT: Pale Ale and Crystal; AWARDS: World Beer Championships, World Champion, 1999; World Beer Cup - Gold,2006; CAMRA Champion Beer of Britain, Silver, 2008; International Beer Challenge, Silver, 2012.

What the Brewer Says: "Rich mahogany in colour, ESB tempts with aromas of orange marmalade, balanced by soft malt toffee. The hops impart grassy, peppery notes alongside hints of citrus fruit - while the Pale Ale and Crystal malts bring distinctive biscuity flavours. A smooth, delicate bitterness lingers on the palate to give a supreme finish."

Color: Copper

Pour: Decent head, some lacing

Aroma: Bready, malt

Body: A bit more than medium

Taste: Malt, bread, banana/clove, bit of toffee in the middle, some pleasing spiciness and citrus

Overall Impression: Between "I Could Drink This" and "Can't Get Enough!"

Comments: "The Jeep of ESBs; Usually the first ESB anyone had pre-craft beer; Classic ESB; Nice beer; Once upon a time you couldn't get a beer like this in the states; I like it, tasty; Just enough hop in there to keep it from being to sweet and appeal to guys like us."


The Beer Facts: BREWER: Anderson Valley Brewing Co., Boonville, CA; STYLE: Extra Special Bitter / Strong Bitter; ABV: 6,8%.

What the Brewer Says:"Inspired by the classic 'Bitters' from Great Britain, our Belk's ESB is an innovative take on the style with a deep, golden hue and big malty foundation, the spicy, herbal hop aromas and crisp, bitter bite give a West Coast flair to this classic recipe."

Color: Somewhat cloudy gold/copper

Pour: A bit shy of Decent head

Aroma: Typically malty/bready

Body: Between Medium and Full

Taste: A hoppier take on ESBs, with notes of pepper, spicy, caramel with some grapefruit notes

Overall Impression: Just shy of Can't Get Enough!

Comments: "Hoppiest so far; Best beer I've had all day; Tastes like a pale - or even an IPA; Nice spicy taste to this that I like; Almost like an Imperial ESB; More alcohol than the usual ESB, but it doesn't overpower; Really good balance, leaning more toward hoppy than the others."


As can be said of any particular style of beer, ESBs fall broadly into a similar profile. They should be malt-forward with the ester-like British yeast taste and varying levels of balancing hops. As such, our overall rating for all of them fell somewhere between "I Could Drink That" (a solid thumbs up) to just shy of our top rating "Can't Get Enough!" We ultimately ranked them like this:

1. Belk's ESB - No surprise here as it was the hoppiest of the bunch and we do like our hoppy beers.

2. Fuller's ESB - The classic ESB, a really enjoyable, tasty beer.

3. Old Bust Head English Style Pale Ale - Nice cozy pale ale with hints of caramel and toffee

4. Redhook ESB - This flagship beer from Redhook has a classic British vibe to it.

5. Green Man ESB -  Silky smooth beer that reminded us of a Nut Brown with a bit of hops

6. Tie - Landlady Ale and Bluebird Bitter - Both easy-drinking enjoyable beers that wouldn't knock your socks off, but were good for a couple of pints in front of the telly.

Next month - A grab bag of beers we haven't reviewed yet.

The BOTB Guys

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