Though summer is (academically) over and school is back in session, Colorado is hot and my house doesn’t have AC. So, despite my love for the dark beers, I am finding that this weather is swaying more toward the lighter side of things.
I’ve found the ESB to be a great compromise between the weather and my passion for dark beers. ESB stands for Extra Special Bitter, and it is an old, traditional English style. Even though it has bitter in its name, an ESB isn’t really bitter at all, especially when compared to an IPA.
ESBs tend to be copper to brown in color and low in carbonation. The taste is often malty and toasty. Though it sounds a lot like a brown ale, ESBs are usually lower in alcohol and more drinkable than their brown cousin, making them a perfect late-summer beer. Perhaps because of the season, a lot of breweries have been offering their take on the ESB.
The first ESB I tried was the Full Sail Extra Special Bitter. The beer pours amber with a small head. I was really stoked for this one as I have come to expect a lot from Full Sail, but I am sad to say I was disappointed. The beer starts with a malty caramel sweetness that mellows out to a bread-like aftertaste that isn’t helped by the low carbonation. On the upside, it is easy to drink quite a few of these without feeling full. Overall, they remained true to the style, though I think Full Sail could have been a little more adventurous with this one.
Last Wednesday, I found myself at Phantom Canyon Brewery for college night and I decided to try their ESB. This one was kegged on nitro and poured a dark brown with a minimal bubbly head. The beer really takes the “bitter” to heart, and strong hop bitterness is present throughout. The malts work well in the background to balance out the bitterness and keep the beer true to style. Kegging this on nitro was definitely a good call, and it further serves to mellow out the bitterness. On the tail-end of the taste some of the darker, roasted malts come through and add some coffee notes. All said, this beer is really delicious, but it loses some of the drinkability of the style to the dark, complex flavor.
Finally, I have to profile Ska’s ESB Special Ale. This beer pours a nice copper out of the can with a lacy white head. The initial taste is of brown sugar and vanilla with fruit in the background. The aftertaste has something spicy and dry about it, just asking for another sip, and the beer kind of magically disappears. The Special Ale is definitely the best rendition of the ESB I tasted; Ska added some vanilla and spice to make things interesting, but didn’t lose the easy-drinking heart of the style. The verdict is: go out and get a six-pack of an ESB, sit on your porch, and enjoy the heat while it is here.