beer reviews Beer styles

In search of ESB – bitter and fruity

The latest coronavirus restrictions now prevent pubs from selling takeaway alcohol, subject to clarifications or U-turns like those that came along under pressure from lobbyists last time, so that looks like an end to our Drapers Arms takeaways for the foreseeable. But at least our final pint was a fantastic ESB.

Severn Brewing Extra Special Bitter just straight-up delighted us: it was dark, fruity and, above all, bitter.

Discussing it, we decided that often when we have a beer describing itself as ESB, it just isn’t bitter enough and it ends up tasting like mild or porter.

Just based on the name, ESB really should be a turbo-charged version of bitter, with some of the dials turned up. In practice, we suppose that means the hopping has to go up to balance the increase in maltiness.

Of course, having had that conversation we looked up our notes from last time we tried Severn’s take – a helpful side effect of maintaining a record of our favourite beers for Patreon round-ups – and found that on that occasion, we did describe it as like a sweet, fruity best mild.

We enjoyed it, but definitely noticed an absence of bitterness.

And, in fact, there were some even earlier notes, from right at the start of 2020, which can probably be summarised as “How DARE they bestow upon this merely adequate brown soup the mighty name of ESB!?”

This made us wonder if freshness might be a factor – that if the beer is a few days or weeks older, it might have dried out and matured.

We thought about the differences in Fullers’ ESB, the template for them all, and perhaps we’ve observed the same thing. Sometimes there’s noticeably more depth of flavour and a richer mouthfeel and, at its worst, it can taste distinctly muddy.

Is ESB fundamentally more of a diva than ordinary bitter? Or maybe the fact that it’s strong (Severn’s is 5.2%) means it tends to hang around a little longer and is more likely to change and evolve at point of sale? 

If only we could test this theory out in some pubs across the country over the next couple of months. We’d be well up for seeing out winter with a focus on this barely-a-style.

In fact, we can still do that: if anyone has got any good suggestions for ESBs that we can order online, do please let us know.

11 replies on “In search of ESB – bitter and fruity”

Marble currently have their Extra Special Marble listed as available in 5 litre mini cask. If they done an ESB before not come across it. Thought was an absolute cracker – toffee/caramel, biscuit & touch of nuttiness; with that bitterness you seeking in a marmalade citrus hopping.

Axholme Brewery ESB which you can get from their trading company Docks Beers. Only started producing it last Summer, a really good take on the style. They distribute Nationwide from the Docks Beers website.

I just had The White Hag one, Electricity Supply Board, a collaboration with Cloudwater. It’s impressively BIG on all fronts. I see Beer Merchants and the Cloudwater shop have it.

Deya’s Giant Leap ESB was very nice if you can find it.

Also Anspach & Hobday are worth a watch to see what they come up with this year. I missed their ESB but they have done other riffs on Bitter recently (Extra Hoppy Bitter/Golden Bitter) which were really great beers.

As one of the older voices in the beer historical community, my recollections of Fuller’s Extra Special Bitter around 1980 may be of interest.

They say memory over such a period can be fallible, and perhaps mine is, but still I recall the draught circa 1980 as malty rich, with a black fruit winy note, and complex flowery/arbour hop taste.

I would say, just bigger and better than a number of bitters of the day. Ruddles County was somewhat similar, so was Courage’s Best Bitter and Directors’.

Fuller ESB of today, while certainly good, doesn’t quite get at the historical taste I recall.

At the GBBF in the last three years, and another CAMRA festival outside London, I tasted my way through a number of special bitters. Perhaps one or two were called extra special. Nothing recalled that 1980 ESB, not even a Fuller’s 1981 ESB recreation offered at its stand at GBBF.

This is not to say there aren’t beers of that taste now, there may well be, but I haven’t ran into any, nor on this side of the Atlantic.

The maturing of stronger draught ales in cask in the pub cellar is somethijng that appears to be surprisingly little-discussed: from all that I have read I would have thought something like an ESB would need AT LEAST a month in the cellar to come into ripe perfection. his is not, however – those who actually run pub cellars can shout atme and tell me I am wrong if they like – something that seems to happen in the modern pub environment.

Torrside Brewing also regularly put out a good malty ESB called Mugwump, hopped with what tastes a bit like centennial. Currently sold out everywhere 🙁

Suggestions. How about Durham Evensong, and Hobson Old Henry? I think I’ve seen both described as ESBs..Both quite mellow, ruby coloured and fruity as I remember, and both about 5%. Available for delivery from the breweries.

Ours is one of our most requested beers, sold out far too quickly on first brew of this winter in Nov and so will be getting a re-brew shortly. Have you had it (surely in cask at Drapers if not in can)? Would you suggest it’s sweeter than your pref, without the bitterness? Be interested to know. Cheers & HNY.

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