In 1971 Fuller’s took a good long look at their lineup of beers.
They had an ordinary bitter, a special known as London Pride and something called Old Burton Extra Ale - but they needed something new.
The Old Burton Extra (presumably a nod to the classic style of ales brewed in Burton, of which you can read more about here) just wasn’t quite special enough, and so it was retired and a new beer was made in its place. The new creation was given the rather fetching name of Extra Special Bitter - or ESB. Hence was born a legend that has gone on to become an (unofficial) style that has been copied around the world.
So how did they make their special bitter - extra special? Without wanting to belittle the achievement, more alcohol is basically the answer - as the types of malt and hops used in Fuller’s ESB are essentially the same as those used in London Pride.
It’s 5.9% abv in the bottle, which seems pretty light compared to most Belgian brews and many of the imperial, double and mega abvs that are currently on trend. But, at the time, it was a step up for a beer aiming at the mainstream pub market. It was obviously a smart move too and ESB has gone on to be known as the Champion Ale, winning awards on a regular basis.
ESB uses classic British hops; Target, Challenger, Northdown and East Kent Golding, but it is the darker crystal and pale ale malts that are the key to this beer.
Pale ale malt is slightly more kilned than pale malt, and Crystal malt (or caramel malt) is another classic steepable British ale malt, bringing more sweetness and colour to the mix. Throw enough of these into the mash bill, beef up the colour, body and abv and then balance with more hops. The results are extra special!
Let’s give it a taste.
The burnt amber, mahogany colour is just irresistible! Then the nose takes over, which is just beautifully deep and fruity and somewhat like a slice of malted barley nut loaf, freshly spread with marmalade. The palate is the ultimate contradiction. Both big and full and somehow light and ethereal thanks to malt and hops working in perfect tandem. There’s caramel and coffee, nuts and gentle spice... that combine with citrus and herbal notes to create a sumptuous mix of sweet and bitter. Woah… what a beer!
Well, I can certainly see why they call it the Champion Ale! I love the audacity of the naming of his beer - Extra Special Bitter - and which Fuller’s has had the foresight to trademark. It really wouldn't work if the results were anything short of very, very special. I can only suggest to Fuller’s that they take another look at their lineup - perhaps it’s time for the Super Special Bitter!
Buy Fuller's ESB here.