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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Fuller's ESB

Last Friday, Ted Sobel of Brewers Union brought a firkin of cask mild to Belmont Station. Not coincidentally, I visited Belmont Station that same evening, and shared two pints of the mild ("Jaws of Barrowdale") with Ted. If you'll allow me a slight digression, I'll mention that since I've had precious few milds--since there are precious few milds to have--I can't really judge it. One can read about milds and compare the descriptions with on-the-hoof examples, but it's not quite the same. It matched up nicely based on the descriptions, and was furthermore a very moreish beer--lightly sweet with a touch of roastiness and a bit of mineral. At 3.7%, a behemoth, but I muscled through a couple pints.

(Hell, since we're digressing I'll mention that the Brewers Union "Au Naturel" offered the next day at the Firkin Fest was exceptional. The name comes from the ingredients: few. Just Maris Otter and US Challengers. If I'm recalling correctly, there were twice the hops in Naturel as Jaws, and the beer was even tinier--3.2%. But au, was it good!--golden in color and delightfully zesty and peppery. I think I offended Ted when I told him it was my fave ever Brewers Union, but I calls 'em as I sees 'em.)

Inspired by our conversation of British Ales, I decided to grab a beer to take home and settled on Fuller's ESB. This venerable, family-owned brewery has long been among my very favorite in the world, and ESB my favorite in their line. Unfortunately, thanks to this damned blog, I am generally off tasting new beers and rarely returning to my old faves. It's been at least five years since I've had an ESB, and I was ever so slightly worried that it wouldn't stand up to my memory.

No worries. It's a spectacular beer. For those who think of English beer as small and malty, Fuller's ESB might come as a surprise. It's a hearty 5.9% and has quite a few hops (though modest bitterness--35 EBU, which is more or less like IBU). But it's not the details that impress--it's the overall presentation. The malt bill is simple--pale and crystal--but produce a deep, satisfying base that has large measures of caramel and marmalade. The hops ( Target, Challenger, Northdown and Goldings) are mainly zesty and spicy, but have a hint of something that bridges over to the marmalade. I think one of the reasons the hops seem more assertive is because of the minerals, which help harmonize all the elements. And all of this comes from a bottle shipped all the way from London.

If you've been neglectful like I have, do yourself a favor and pick up a bottle. You won't regret it.


  1. I got a six-pack of Fuller's ESB last fall. Delicious!

  2. Man, a little over a week ago Beermongers had Fullers ESB on tap, calling my name. Sadly I didn't make it over there while it was on.

    It really is a classic. I think years ago I used to slightly prefer Young's ESB, but I'm not sure that makes it to Oregon.

    Sad that I was out of town for the big firkin weekend.

  3. I've always been more fond of London Pride. It always makes me regret how many American brewers tamp down the fruity esters.

  4. ESB is a great, great beer. Interesting to see you guys on that side of the pond hunting it down, whereas over here you can get it everywhere! :P


  5. ESB is a classic, even though it's relatively modern since it was first brewed in 1968 and replaced Old Burton Extra or OBE in the Fuller's lineup. (Sorry shameless plug for Burton ale).

    @Bill Night - My understanding is that in the UK, ESB is a brand (ie, Fuller's stongest bitter), not a style the way we've adopted it here. There's Young's Special London Ale, but no Young's ESB, since ESB is a Fuller's beer. It'd be like asking for a Widmer Hop Czar.....

    Sorry, pet peeve that we've taken a brand name and turned it into a category. Just another example of how we in the US force our conception of styles on the rest of the beer world.

  6. @Bill S: thanks for the clarification, I did not know that.

    I could have sworn that in the early 90's the Crown and Anchor in Austin used to have a Young's ESB on tap, but I must be confusing Ram Rod or maybe the Special London.

  7. Fullers ESB is a terrific easy drinking beer.

  8. Shawn, it's a relatively easy beer to find.

  9. @Bill Schneller
    Nope. Bitter, Best Bitter, Extra Special Bitter are beer styles in the UK, USofA, and, probably, the other nations that were sourced by that mixture of Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Friesans, et al.

    BeerAdovocate style66 list hundreds of ESB depending on where you make a distinction between ESB and bitter.

    Pete Brown [UK] sources bitter to brewers in Burton-on-Trent, particularly Bass, mid-19th century.

  10. Jack R - I'm not arguing that Beer Advocate (a US site) lists ESB as a style. That's exactly my point - in the US we've made it a style when it's actually a specific beer in the UK. I would argue that in the UK ESB started as a specific beer. In the UK, ESB would be classified as a strong bitter, along with a host of others. I don't dispute the existence of storng bitter. I dispute the use of ESB as a style in the UK.

    Fuller's claims it brewed ESB first in 1971 on its website, but I've seen references (I believe from Martyn Cornell) that say 1968 when it appeared as Winter Bitter to replace the slow selling OBE (Old Burton Extra) in their line up. In any event, I'm unable to find a UK reference to ESB as a style before Fuller's, but there are huge amounts of references to strong bitters. In fact, I'm not able to find another UK brewed strong bitter called ESB by the brewery. Show me some if I'm wrong.

    My point is that we in the US often appropriate a name or style from foreign beer culture, then brew our own versions, redefine it as a "style" and then insist that our versions and history of it are authentic. (Just look at our misconceptions about IPA.)

    So, someone show me a UK brewed strong bitter besides Fuller's that the brewer classifies as ESB and not as strong bitter, or a reference to ESB as a style before 1968 or 1971. If I'm wrong I'd like to see a real UK reference and not something from the US like Beer Advocate that pulls style and history out of thin air.

    I know there are UK readers of this blog. Any thoughts?

  11. The only ESB you'll find in the UK is Fuller's. As a matter of fact by law, Fuller's is the only brewer that may use the ESB label. Alas you are correct, ESB is a beer, and not a style of beer.

  12. Fuller's ESB, if I remember correctly, simply stands for "Extra Special Bitter"