What’s So Special About Extra Special Bitter, Anyway?

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With their low ABV and pleasant balance of malt and hops, ESBs are on the rise. Here are the ones worth seeking out.

With the IPA’s stubborn dominance of craft beer, it’s been easy to forget (or never know at all) that there’s another bitter, three-letter style lurking. The ESB, or Extra Special Bitter, has spent most of the 21st century in the shadows of American craft beer, but lately—finally—more beer geeks have become hip to its charms.

And those charms are many. The ESB, despite its name, is actually less bitter than the American IPA, its hop character perfectly balanced by a biscuity malt presence. Its lower alcohol content is attractive, too. Hovering between 4.5 percent and 6.2 percent ABV, but usually toward the lower end of that range, the ESB is not quite a session ale in the U.K., but in the United States, where our IPAs tend to weigh in around 7 percent or 8 percent, it’s downright easy-drinking. Think of it as delivering full, hoppy ale flavor and malty richness, with the sessionability of a pilsner.

Compared to relatively newer, flashier styles (see: the hazy IPA), the ESB is a classic English style. But not too classic: While its name is giving “time-honored tradition,” the style isn’t all that old. The ESB originated at Fuller’s Brewery in London in 1971 and actually included hops from the U.S., Australia and Slovenia in addition to English hops. The name “Extra Special Bitter,” says beer journalist and author Melissa Cole, was used because Fuller’s already had a lineup of “ordinary” and “special” bitters, so they deemed this latest version “extra special.” 

Not too long after the ESB was born in the U.K., it hopped across the Atlantic. “In the beginning of American craft beer, it was almost 100 percent British styles,” says Michael Roper, co-owner of Chicago’s Hopleaf Bar. “That’s what people went to in the late ’80s.” Styles like the ESB held on in early craft beer’s microbreweries and brewpubs until American IPAs caught fire in the early aughts and overshadowed anything that wasn’t boldly hoppy. In fact, Roper notes, when John Hall founded Goose Island in 1998, one of his very first beers was an ESB called Honker’s Ale. (Goose Island ceased distribution of Honker’s in 2019, but it’s still on draft in the taproom.)

Within a few years of Honker’s debut, though, breweries like Stone had unleashed their bitterness-as-a-dare American IPAs on the populace, lighting the fuse for the “IBU Wars.” American beer drinkers developed an unquenchable thirst for extreme bitterness and explosive hop character in their beers, leaving a more nuanced style like the ESB in the dust. By the time the 2010s rolled around, IBUs began racing back down toward zero, with palate-wrecked drinkers now demanding just as much hop character, but in the sweeter, juicier format of the New England (aka hazy) IPA. There was still no room for a humble ale known for low-key session drinking. 

Today, that is slowly changing. “Many people have finally said, ‘I don’t really want the 12 percent double IPA anymore, I want something where I can walk out of the bar conscious after drinking a couple,’” says Roper. The ESB, however, isn’t at the other end of the spectrum; it’s somewhere in the middle. “The thing about ESBs is that,” Roper continues, “when I talk about ‘lighter,’ I’m not talking about ‘flavorless.’”

While it’s unlikely that any style will dethrone the IPA, American craft beer has undeniably seen growing interest in more traditional beer styles with lower alcohol content and more low-key, nuanced flavor profiles. German- and Czech-style lagers opened the door for this shift; now beer drinkers are beginning to explore lighter ales, from brown and amber ales to dark mild ales and ESBs. Similarly, brewers who have spent the last couple years practicing painstaking lager-brewing traditions are now applying the same focus on simplicity and balance to these British styles. 

“It should be an easy beer to have a couple pints of, and something we can hang our hats on calling a house beer,” says Jason Sahler, co-founder and head brewer at Brooklyn’s Strong Rope Brewery, where the Tavern Ale ESB “overall is a stalwart, holding down its line and giving people a reliable standard.” ESBs, Sahler adds, are worth seeking out because of the balance and restraint from the brewer they demonstrate. They’ve got to locate, and successfully walk, that tightrope between earthy, herbal, fruity hop character, bitterness and biscuity, caramelly malt. Stray too far in either direction, and it’s no longer an ESB. To that end, the beauty of an ESB is that it does not demand to be the conversation; it’s meant to accompany the conversation. Here are a few high-quality examples that do just that.

Three ESBs to Try

Wayward Lane Brewing: Penny Whip

Because the ESB is such a niche style, you won’t find a ton of riffing. For brewers, this style scratches the itch to geek out on traditional ingredients and methods, not to push the envelope with innovation. Penny Whip is a perfect example. From Wayward Lane in Schoharie, New York, this 5 percent ABV ale immediately offers up a combination of caramel, graham and stone fruit in the aroma, its earthy hop character blossoming from early in each sip through to a nice, lingering bitterness.

Old Thunder Brewing Company: Stillage

Pittsburgh’s Old Thunder also pays homage to the ESB’s roots with Stillage. “What really defines an ESB are the classic ingredients,” says co-founder Josh Taylor. “We use 100 percent Simpson malt and Maris Otter, and a small amount of English Crystal hops.” Stillage indeed is a master class in the ESB’s malt-and-hop balance, with a true-to-form 4.8 percent ABV. First brewed in 2020, it’s not one of Old Thunder’s flagships, but some variation of it is available each quarter of the year, Taylor says. They also brew riffs like Yorkshire Stillage, a pale ale; Mild Stillage, a mild ale; and Golden Stillage, a golden ale.

Green Man Brewing Co.: ESB

While pretty reliable overall, Green Man’s ESB deviates ever so slightly. The Asheville, North Carolina, brewery’s take is a touch more amber than other examples, and, accordingly, is a bit heavier on the caramel and toast notes. Balancing that malt character are some quintessential stone fruit-y esters and the essential hop bitterness that builds through to the aftertaste. At 5.5 percent, it’s right in line with an easier-drinking pick that still packs plenty of flavor.

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