The Extra Special Bitter (ESB) has a cocky name that belies its appeal as a beer style that is generally understated, balanced and highly drinkable.
What I love about ESBs is the great interplay between the different elements. Without any one ingredient dominating, the malt, hops and yeast are each able contribute their own distinctive characteristics to the beer.
The ESB is a broad style that is difficult to define. It is basically a kind of English-style pale ale that is a bit stronger. These BJCP style guidelines describe it as “A rather broad style that allows for considerable interpretation by the brewer”.
This is borne out in the ESBs brewed in Australia that range from sweet to dry, light to dark, and creamy. Here are some of the best examples going around in Australia at the moment:
3 Ravens English ESB
A Gold Medal winner for this style at the AIBA awards, along with Mountain Goat’s Hightail Ale. It is a bronze/copper colour with a dry earthy finish. This ESB is a really good winter beer for those that enjoy an eminently drinkable malty ale.
Mornington Peninsula’s Dog’s Bollocks ESB
The Dog’s Bollocks is a new release that seems to play on the tendency of UK ales to have bizarre names like Sheepshagger. The beer itself is interesting as a rare canned ‘nitro beer’, the nitro giving it a creamier thicker body that enhances its already sessionable nature.
This beer really hits the mark as a smooth creamy beer with a pleasant interplay of sweet malts, earthy hops and fruity esters.
Napoleone’s Longbow ESB and Fighting Jack ESB
While many craft breweries are focused on following American styles, Napoleone are making their mark through their interpretations of European styles and recently released an ESB for their first canned beer. The Longbow ESB is quite pale for an ESB so is a bit subtler in its malt flavours but has some nice nuances of fruity esters from the English yeast.
Personally I enjoyed most their bigger ESB on tap from the brewery bar last year, Fighting Jack, packing in at over 7% with a darker colour and bigger malt profile.
4 Pines ESB
4 Pines’ ESB is one of the lighter and sweeter examples out there. I enjoyed it more as it warmed up and the fruity esters of the yeast came through more.
Hargreaves Hill ESB
An Australian classic that may get overlooked by some, I feel like if it was called a pale ale and had a rad label it would be one of the best regarded beers in Australia.
This is distinctly different to other ESBs on this list as the beer is powered by new-world hops, the bright berry and tropical fruit aromas of the Nelson Sauvin hops shining over a sweet malt base.
Holgate’s ESB is a well-balanced beer and good example of the style. It drinks particularly well when it has a fuller mouthfeel after being pulled from a handpump at the brewery bar or at the Royston Hotel say, and is a handy winter beer.
For those lacking for the classic examples of the style, there’s Fullers ESB which is the forefather, and Courage’s Strong Bitter is another. They are a good drop and are available at the big retailers. And for those brewing at home, Jamil provides a good style profile here.