Bitters And ESBs: With A Name Like That It Has To Be Bitter, Right?

Whether you are new to beer or have been around it for a while, there are times when you come across a beer style you don’t understand or doesn’t make sense. Bitters and ESBs (Extra Special Bitters) are styles that can fall into that category and can create confusion.

When you hear the word bitter, you probably think of a really hoppy, bitter beer – like an IPA. But let’s look into this style so we can better understand what this style is all about and why it’s called bitter.


A Long, Long Time Ago

There was a time that beer was made with malt that had been dried over open flames. It produced a dark beer with a heavy malt and smoke flavor that overpowered any hop profile.

Bitters And ESBs
Image Courtesy Fuller Smith & Turner

Then over the 1700s and early 1800s, beer changed as new processes allowed lighter (pale) malts to be created. These new malts created a beer with lighter color and lighter malt flavor without any smoke.

The lighter malt flavor allowed the bitterness from the hops to show; at least compared to earlier beers. For this reason, these pale ales were called Bitters.

These Bitters came in different levels of intensity.

  • Original | 3.4 – 3.9% ABV
  • Best | 4% – 4.9% ABV
  • (Extra) Special | 5% ABV or higher

All of these are considered low ABV by modern beer standards.

When these beers first came to be; porters, stout and milds were the most popular in Great Britain. But over time, the Bitter became the preferred option in most pubs.

The Bitter was served as a cask ale which means it was unpasteurized, unfiltered and additional carbonation wasn’t added. Further more, it was often poured with a beer engine or hand pump. Today. it’s quite rare to find a brewery or bar that serves beer in this manner.


Learn More About Cask Ales


What To Expect From Bitters And ESBs

The Bitter, aka English Pale Ale, has some unique features that separates it from the American Pale Ale.

Image Courtesy Of Left Hand Brewing

First, balance is the goal of this style; meaning the hops and malt work in harmony together. Neither should be the dominating flavor.

Second, the hop profile is often earthy and herbal rather than fruity, citrusy or piney – as you normally find in American beers. The use of English hops creates this difference. In Bitters, the hop most often used is the East Kent Golding.

The earthly, herbal hop profile matches up very well to the malt. The color will be golden to bronze.

While it can have a strong hop bitterness, it normally doesn’t. Again, the goal is a well balanced session kind of beer. As a favorite in pubs, those drinking it would want to enjoy many of them without being completely impaired or worn out by harsh flavors.

Back when it was created, this style was considered bitter compared to other styles.

But in today’s world, the hop bitterness of a Bitter is quite mild compared to IPAs, APAs, etc. So expect the hop bitterness to be there but don’t expect it to be strong or overly pronounced.


Bitters And ESBs To Try

Belhaven Brewery – Belhaven Best | Bitter | 3.5% ABV

The pint of pints. Belhaven Best is the main man of draught ales. Best colour, best flavour, best balance – the pint for all occasions.

Fuller, Smith & Turner – ESB | Extra Special Bitter | 5.5% ABV | 40 IBU

ESB is a strong, full-bodied, mahogany-coloured ale with a mellow bitterness and satisfying finish. Brewed with Pale Ale and Crystal malts, this brew has been nicknamed The Champion Ale after winning the World Champion Beer award on two occasions.

Fuller, Smith & Turner – London Pride | Bitter | 4.1% ABV

Bitters And ESBs
Image Courtesy Of Fuller Smith & Turner

Brewed beside the Thames since 1845, award-winning London Pride is best known for its exceptional balance of malt and hops, giving rise to well-rounded flavour. It is brewed with Pale malt, plus Target, Challenger and Northdown hops.

Green Man Brewery – ESB | Extra Special Bitter | 5.5% ABV | 32 IBU

A malty amber ale boasting rich toasted and caramel flavors, Green Man ESB is one of our award-winning signature brews. Our blend of authentic British malts and hops creates a nutty aroma, full body, and a sweet finish.

Left Hand Brewing – Sawtooth Ale | Extra Special Bitter | 5.3% ABV | 27 IBU

Sessionable. Unpretentious. Left Hand’s original flagship. Proof that a beer can be both complex and balanced. Malty chewiness slowly transitioning over to herbal, earthy hops with a dry finish.

Victory Brewing – Uncle Teddy’s Bitter | Bitter | 3.9% ABV

Full and creamy on the tongue with no ‘bite’ as the name might suggest, this classic British ale is deep golden in color and mild in character.


The Bitter End

I’ve got to give a shout out to Mike that sent me a message and recommended this topic. He’s a big fan of Bitters and ESBs so he wanted to ensure that others could learn more about this style.

If you’ve got a suggestion or want to talk beer a little more, make sure to send me a message.

As the craft beer world grows and matures, I believe that many will look towards traditional styles to help balance out the modern beers they enjoy.

Bitters and ESBs offer a lot of flavor in an approachable manner. This is quite different than the juice bomb Hazy IPAs or the super sweet stouts that seem to dominate most of the craft beer world. Drinking a variety of beer styles will help you appreciate all styles a little more.

It’s not often that I reach for an ESB but I’d like to change that and get more of these older European styles into my rotation; especially if a local brewery decides to make one.

Do You Like Bitters and ESBs? What Are Your Favorites?

*Feature Image Courtesy Of Fuller Smith & Turner

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