Why I Drink ESB

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Last year, a few months before my daughter was born, my wife, Amy, and I met up with our friend Peter and his wife, also named Amy, in Asheville, North Carolina. Though my Amy was seven months pregnant, she agreed to come along on what was already predetermined to be four days of drinking beer. Lots of beer.

Asheville, as you probably know, is famous for the stuff. And, while I'd always suspected there was a little too much hype surrounding the quality of the beers in this Appalachian mountain town—which claims to have more breweries per capita than anywhere else in the country—I was quickly proven wrong. Asheville does serve some of the best beers in America, if not the world. Believe it.

I figured there would be a lot of hoppy IPAs on tap, and there were. I figured there would be some in-vogue sours and those horrible goses everyone seems to like; yes to that, too. But there were also some surprises. At Wedge brewery, I drank a hoppy, citrusy Helles Bock, not a beer I see much of these days; at Burial Beer Co., a crisp Belgian-style blonde reminded me why I used to love Belgian beer so damn much. But my favorite beer by far was of a style I'd long ago forgotten about: an Extra Special Bitter (ESB) from Green Man Brewery that I sipped on a rainy afternoon with Peter at Jack of the Wood pub.

The beer was a deep amber color, and, on first sip, it blanketed my palate with warm notes of caramel, toffee, and nuts, while simultaneously awakening it with floral hops that added just a tiny hint of bitterness. It was rich and malty, but beautifully balanced; the carbonation light, almost understated. I'd soon learn that there were quite a few Asheville breweries practicing the ESB arts. At French Broad Brewery, I tried a 13 Rebels ESB with hints of black tea, caramel, and citrus. At Twin Leaf, I had a darker version that tasted of biscuits and toasted bread. All of these beers had a low enough ABV (somewhere in the 5 percents) that I could drink several in one session, without making a fool of myself in front of Amy as she sat nursing her bottomless seltzers with lime.

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An ESB is basically an English bitter, the workaday session brew enjoyed at local pubs by Englishmen for centuries, and that includes everything from so-called Standard or Ordinary Bitters to the slightly stronger "Best Bitters" to India Pale Ales. According to Mike Reis, a certified cicerone, Ordinary Bitters are the weakest of the bunch—most weighing in at around 3 to 4% ABV. Special or "Best" Bitters are a bit stronger, "tipping the scales in the low to high 4 percents," while ESBs occasionally push 6% ABV but are usually in the mid-5% range.

Compared to many American ales these days, bitters, ESBs included, may not strike you as all that, well, bitter, though some can reach up to 50 IBUs (about the equivalent of a Lagunitas IPA). Most, however, are easy drinking, light on the alcohol and, with their warm flavors, light on the palate, too. It's the perfect beer to spend quality time with on a cold and rainy day at any old pub.

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Before my trip to Asheville, it had been about 20 years since I'd tasted an ESB. I had my first just after college, in the mid-1990s. I was sitting at The Comet, a self-styled dive bar in Cincinnati's Northside neighborhood, when I noticed a dark brown bottle with a red and orange label sitting in the cooler. After a lifetime of Rolling Rock, Schlitz, and the occasional Amstel Light, I decided to switch things up a bit and order one.

The beer came from Redhook, a Seattle-based brewery I'd never heard of before. I'd soon learn that the owners had recently sold 25% of their shares to Anheuser-Busch, hence the sudden availability of their beer in Cincinnati, I suppose. This was years before the craft beer movement kicked into high gear, so any time a new bottle popped up in a cooler, or a new lever on a tap, it was regarded with curiosity, if not suspicion. But after cracking one open, I immediately fell in love. It became my usual, and I started feeling a certain sense of superiority as I savored it amongst my High Life–swigging friends, as Velvet Underground and Uncle Tupelo songs played on the Comet's jukebox, and my ashtray piled high with smoldering Camel Lights. Eventually, Redhook ESB led me down other avenues of malty brown and amber ales, as well as stouts, porters, and bocks.

But as the 1990s gave way to a new millennium, and the craft beer movement gained momentum, Redhook ESB, as well as maltier beers in general, seemed to almost disappear from American taps, giving way to hop-forward IPAs and other ales. In fact, I'd all but forgotten about ESBs until I was reacquainted with them in Asheville. Here was a style of beer I hadn't drunk, much less seen, in almost two decades. And now it was suddenly the object of affection for some of the best breweries in America?

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To understand the shift, you have to look to the history of ESB as a style. While stronger bitters similar to ESBs date back centuries, the term was first introduced in 1971 by London-based Fuller's. "It's the first one I ever had, and, to this day, it's my benchmark," says John Stuart, head brewer at Green Man in Asheville. "I'm not sure what was so appealing about it—just the balanced malt/hop ratio. Plus, it was probably one of the few full-flavored British imports you could find in the '80s."

Regarding the beer's current lack of popularity, Stuart thinks the general public is still confused by the style."People get hung up on the word 'bitter,'" he says. The fact that many brewers don't use the term "ESB" to describe what are, in fact, ESBs is also confusing, he says, pointing to an ESB from Sierra Nevada that calls itself an "Early Spring Beer," instead of an Extra Special Bitter.

Maybe it's not trendy, but Stuart's long been a fan of ESB, and a lot of other craft brewers out there are, too. "In the 1990s, I brewed for a chain brewpub, and we had an amber lager as one of our main beers," Stuart told me recently. "So every time I brought up ESB, they asked, 'What's ESB?' When I told them it was sort of an English amber, they were like, 'Well, we already have an amber.' So I never brewed it. But I constantly made mental notes of how I would brew one if I got the chance." When Stuart came to Green Man in 2007, the owners gave him free rein to brew the beers he wanted to brew—and an ESB was one of them. "I finally was able to unleash 10 years or so of daydreaming about ESB and actually brew one," he said. "And there you have it."

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Since that trip to Asheville, I've become obsessive in my hunt for ESBs, which are still hard to come by where I live in New York City. Along with Fuller's, I've also started drinking Scarlet Lady Ale ESB from Adamstown, Pennsylvania–based Stoudts Brewing Company. Brett Kintzer, the head brewer at Stoudts, is another who fell hard for ESBs back in the day, and counts Scarlet Lady as one of his favorite beers. "For about 10 years, it's all I drank," Kintzer tells me on the phone one day. The beer is a classic compromise between an English-style ESB and a hoppier American beer. It's malty, but not nearly as mild as Fuller's. Kintzer admits that Scarlet Lady isn't one of the brewery's best sellers. In fact, it often comes in around fourth or fifth in terms of popularity. Still, he says, sales do go up when the weather gets chilly. As he tells me this, I head to my fridge and pop a Scarlet Lady Ale open for myself. I can think of no better beer to sip during these final months of winter.

These days, I'm drinking Fuller's and Stoudts the same way I used to drink those Redhooks back in the 1990s (sadly, Green Man's ESB is still unavailable in New York). But I've also found myself picking up the occasional six-pack of Redhook at the local bodega. I still love the stuff. Each bottle takes me back to those post-college days, when I first discovered there was more to life than cheap cans of lager—that somewhere out there, people were starting to care about beer again. I'm glad it caught on.