Bitter is a relative term. The classic Bitters are downright malty when compared to today’s hop-bombs. However, they were quite bitter when compared to the Milds, Browns and Porters popular in England when Bitters stormed onto the seen. Compared to modern bitter American ales, ESBs are well balanced, with a strong malt backbone supporting the hop bitterness.
But “bitter” still scares people. Some breweries avoid the term to encourage folks to drink their beer. Nashville’s Tennessee Brew Works calls their ESB “Extra Easy” and don’t mention it’s an ESB in the name. Spokane’s No Li won a 2012 GABF gold medal with their Crystal Bitter ESB, yet changed the name in 2014 to Spin Cycle Red Ale (the beer is unchanged).
To understand ESB, you have to understand the progression of British beer. Milds grow into Browns, which become Porters and finally Stouts. Likewise, Standard Bitters (Ordinary Bitter) get bigger and become Special Bitter (Best/Premium Bitter) then grow into ESBs (or Strong Bitter). Intensity grows along the way, either in color, maltiness, bitterness and ABV* (and sometime in all those characteristics). There are commonalities among each path, but each style has its own unique characteristics.
When enjoying an ESB you’ll notice aromas of earthy, herbal British hops, sweet malts, and possibly very light fruitness from the yeast esters. You’ll taste caramelly sweetness that finishes with a hop bitterness and light sweetness. ESB is one style where a touch of Diacetyl (butter flavor) is OK, but should be at very low levels. Also, there is little difference between British Pale Ales and Bitters. Some would say they are the same thing. We’ll talk about that in an upcoming post.
ESB display a wide range of color, from gold to copper, with an SRM* of 6-18, similar to American Ambers. Bitterness should be very noticeable, ranging from 30-50 IBUs.* While Bitters and Special Bitters can be very sessionable (3.2-4.5%), ESBs are bigger with ABV* ranging 4.6% up to 6.2%.
Fuller’s ESB pours a light copper, with aromas of British hops and malts. This is the classic British ESB. It’s rich malty flavors fade into aftertastes of mild sweetness and crisp bitterness. Southern Prohibition Jack the Sipper ESB is a great interpretation of the style. It pours amber and has more floral hop aromas than the Fuller’s. It’s malt flavor is biscuity, you don’t get much caramel. The finish is clean, neither sweet nor dry, with a mild hop bitterness. Overall, it’s light in every way from the Fuller’s ESB, but both are terrific.
There are several options to choose from at your local pub. Try British classics like Young’s Ram Rod, Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery Pale Ale, Bass Ale, Whitbread Pale Ale, and Morland Old Speckled Hen. Some of my favorite American interpretations of the classic British ESB are TN Brew Works Extra Easy, Left Hand Sawtooth Ale, Green Man ESB, French Broad 13 Rebels, Laughing Dog CSB and NoLi Spin Cycle Red Ale (aka Crystal Bitter ESB).
One tip for beer and food pairing is to match regional foods with regional beers. It’s no coincidence traditional local foods pair well. For English Bitters, there’s no match quite like Fish and Chips. The malt flavors complement the fried batter, while the carbonation and bitterness help cleanse the fattiness from the palette. British dishes like Bangers & Mash and Shepherds Pie are equally delicious with ESB. ESB is great for game too, so give it a try with venison, duck or quail.
The Nonic Pint Glass is the traditional glass for most English Ales, including bitters (yet, somehow, I don’t own one). It’s similar in shape to a standard Shaker Pint, but has a bulge around the top of the glass. The Spiegelau Lager Glass also works well for English Ales.
*Standard Reference Method
*International Bitterness Units
*Alcohol by Volume
All quantitative specifications are from the BJCP Style Guide.