Thursday, December 2, 2010

Style spotlight: ESB

The Extra-Special Bitter, or ESB, is a centuries-old English ale style. It is derived from its diminutive brothers, the Bitter and Special Bitter.

ESB bears some similarities to the pale ale. Both are often strongly hopped, but the ESB tends to carry a more mineral-like taste.

The delicious, idiosyncratic ESB is one of my favorite styles. They are widely available most places, but in Durango, surprisingly, only Ska Brewing Co. regularly brews an ESB.

Fortunately, Ska's ESB is excellent. (It won a bronze medal at the 2010 Great American Beer Festival). It's aggressively and brightly hopped, with an off-white head foaming over the copper malt body. In fact, it's my favorite of Ska's year-round beers and, I think, unfortunately overlooked by the legions who prefer Pinstripe, True Blonde and Modus Hoperandi.

That said, Ska's version is a very hoppy and strong interpretation. Sometimes one longs for a slightly milder and more typical ESB.

During a recent visit to Star Liquors, arguably Durango's best-stocked liquor store, Ska's ESB was the only available example of the style. I later found a six-pack of Fuller's ESB at The Wine Merchant.

Fuller's, brewed in England, is a bit expensive at $12 for a six-pack, but it's a world-classic beer and I wanted to try it. It is indeed a milder and creamier ESB, with the hops acting as accompaniement rather than lead note.

I've also had some superb ESBs in Oregon, notably at Hopworks Urban Brewery in Portland and Calapooia Brewing in Albany.

It says something that three of Durango's four breweries choose not to brew an ESB. They all brew pale ales, a closely related style, but I would love to see more local ESBs, especially on cask, where the style is especially lovely.

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