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Fuller’s ESB

February 16, 2010

With all of the good beer in the world it’s hard to walk into a beer store and walk out with exactly what you intended to buy.  Many times I end up spending double what I had originally planned.  There are seasonals which you can only buy three months of the year, there are limited releases which many stores only get a few cases of, and then there are the impulse buys.

I’m sure we all have certain beers in the back of our minds that aren’t any of the above mentioned.  These are beers that are always there, sitting faithfully on the edge of the shelf; begging to be purchased.  Many of these are world class examples of historic styles, but they aren’t eye catching.  No modern, edgy artwork.  No daring, avant garde beer names.  No “doubles” or “imperials” (unless its a real Russian Imperial Stout.)

These are THE STANDARDS.  When you think of a particular style there is always a beer that near-perfectly represents the style.  Pilsner, Pilsner Urquell. Doppelbock, Ayinger.  Weizenbock, Aventinus. Wheat, Schneider-Weisse.  Sure, modern Craft Breweries have created world-class examples themselves, but they will never lay claim to the original Bitter or Pilsener.  I for one am very guilty of skipping over the standards in favor of a more daring, style-busting craft beer.

Well, tonight I leave the Quad-IPAs and the Black wit biers (it will happen one day…somehow) to the masses.  Instead I will visit the standard for English bitters, hell, for all Bitters–Fuller’s ESB.


10 CAMRA awards and numerous other international beer competition wins leaves no doubt that Fuller’s Extra Special Bitter is the Bitter to end all Bitter beers.  Marketing speak from the Fuller’s website:

First brewed in 1971, ESB is unrivaled in flavor and balance. A robust 5.5% alcohol by volume in cask (5.9% alcohol by volume in bottles and kegs), it is brewed from Pale Ale and Crystal malts and from Target, Challenger, Northdown and Goldings hops.

Being an “extra special bitter” means higher alcohol, more hops, etc.  These are basically bigger, stronger English Ales.  It should be well balanced, but with more punch and flavor.  The bottle is classic in style; A far cry from the brazen artwork adorning new age craft breweries.  It features a blue and gold crest with large “ESB” lettering.  It’s pretty standard as far as English beers go, and this is exactly why it would be easy to overlook this unassuming bottle.  A few dollars at Friar Tuck later and I now will assimilte 16.9 oz. of the premier bitter into my system.


Beer: ESB

Brewer: Fuller Smith & Turner, London

ABV: 5.9%

Serving: 16.9 oz bottle pour, Samuel Smith pint glass


A big pour into my Samuel Smith pint glass reveals a vivid, clear copper brew with a tall, foamy, white head.  Spotty lacing persists throughout my enjoyable pint.

The nose is a complex mix of malt and hops.  I’m picking up on a lot of earthy hop aromas mixed with redolent noble hops.  Toasted malt is the other big part of the nose.  At first I was turned off by the haughty-taughty aroma, but the more I drink and smell the more I am falling in love with the perfect balance Fuller’s has achieved.

In the mouth we have toasty malt up front that leads into a marginally drying bitter finish.  Quite balanced!  Nothing is too pronounced here.  The key  is subtlety.  This may be an “extra special” version of a bitter, but Fuller’s ESB never loses it’s well-balanced character.  The earthy hops complement the sweet malt wonderfully.  The aroma almost would lead one to believe they were about to experience an underwhelming beer, but the balanced flavor quickly fixes that skewed perception.

A medium-light body fits the style well.  It slides smoothly over the tongue with little carbonation to interrupt the sensation.  Fuller’s ESB is highly drinkable.  At 5.9% it’s not exactly sessionable, but I certainly wouldn’t mind knocking back a few of these in an English pub atmosphere.


Apearance: 4.0/5

Aroma: 4.5/5

Flavor: 4.8/5

Mouthfeel: 4.0/5

Drinkability: 4.2/5

Overall: 4.3/5

Chance of Craft Beer Epiphany: 65%

I’ll admit that I have been getting used to the citrus, pine, and other bold characteristics of emerging American craft breweries.  The subtleties offered up by Fuller’s Extra Special Bitter were the opposite of shocking-and I loved it!  However, with West Coast IPAs and American Pale Ales being shoved in every new craft beer drinker’s face the Bitters of England may be getting lost in the Yakima fog.  This beer surprised me thanks to it’s thankless balance and sophisticated palate.  Only a true craft beer prodigy would appreciate this one direct from a Keystone Light keg line, but they will be all the better for it.





BJCP Style Guidelines Extra Special/Strong Bitter

  1. This is a good beer. I agree that some American beer lovers — what with all our big hoppy brews — might lose sight of English beers … not just bitters, but IPAs, barleywines, etc. They’re so different from ours! Also, I chuckled out loud at your closing line.

  2. Bobby permalink

    You managed to intrigue me with fancy words to something that I have no direct interest in. Well done. While I was reading the word connoisseur kept coming to mind. When I read, “certainly wouldn’t mind knocking back a few of these in an English pub atmosphere”; I was thinking hmm maybe right before a Manchester United game? lol

  3. joe permalink

    I greatly enjoyed this bottled beer and only tried it for nostalgic reasons as I remembered my last trip to London. Keep in mind you are not drinking the real stuff – cask conditioned that is.

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