A helpful reader recently pointed out to me that my “Make Your Best Bitter” piece didn’t really provide a recipe for any particular English Pale Ale. Fair enough, then—let’s talk about the Cadillac of English Pale/Golden ales, the Extra Special Bitter (ESB)! This is one of my favorite styles, and when I want to know if a brewery is on the right track to making good things, it’s one of the “acid test” beers that I use to find out. And since I just saw a friend post a picture of the beer that this beer is based on—a certain butterscotch-heavy Oxfordshire darker-than-pale English Pale Ale—it seemed like too good a coincidence to ignore.
Some people (looking in the mirror) often get into fights over what is and is not an ESB. On the one hand, “Extra Special Bitter” is simply another English Pale Ale—it just happens to be the one that’s strongest and may contain a bit more malt flavor. Others contend that “ESB” as a style is now and forever tied to the eponymous Fuller’s version, with its higher ABV, richer and fruitier flavor, and stronger hops presence. I’m not going to get into it, but suffice to say that most of what we consider “ESB” is not in the Fuller’s vein, for better or worse. The style is distinctly English, though, with significant malt complexity (though usually of the lower-Lovibond variety), a fairly high IBU-to-gravity ratio, and English flavor/aroma hops and yeast strains. This is also a style that benefits from some “water awareness,” as many examples have not only high-ish bittering but a flinty character to the bitterness that makes it seem higher than it actually is.
This is a pretty simple recipe, really. As the saying goes, “the better the fish, the lighter the sauce,” and the key here is in getting good, authentic ingredients. Thomas Fawcett all the way for me on the grist: Eight pounds (3.6 kg) of Maris Otter and ½ pound (227 g) each of Fawcett 45L and 65L. In lighter bitters, I generally go with the Fawcett 45L and Victory, but here I want the richness to come through, not just the toast. You may also hear, on occasion, that you should be adding Lyle’s Golden Syrup or other invert sugars to your ESBs; I won’t tell you not to, but I’ll say that I’ve experimented with them and never noticed any difference whatsoever. These three malts should more than do the trick and should get you to an ABV of about 5.3%.
Hopping is all one hop in four different additions: East Kent Goldings. An ounce (28 g) at 60 minutes, ¾ ounce (21 g) at 30 and 10 minutes, then ½ ounce (14 g) at flameout. It should give you about 35 IBUs at 5% AA.
Yeast is simple here: London ESB, Wyeast 1968. In most beers I don’t like it because I don’t like being a diacetyl watchdog, and in my other bitter recipes I prefer the rock-steady London III, but this recipe is better with just a bit of butterscotch, and the berry, pear, and citrus esters you get from a slightly-warm, don’t-give-a-damn about diacetyl fermentation are just outstanding.
This beer is made in the fermentation chamber. There’s nothing much to the mash or boil (but if your water is on the softer side, bump up your sulfates until they at least balance your chloride), but fermentation temperature is key. Start in the high-60s (68°F/20°C should be fine), and ramp up ever so slightly after 5–6 days to 70°F (21°C). You want the esters, and you don’t mind the diacetyl that much, but you don’t want a butter bomb. The little rise at the end will encourage a bit of clean-up, but the high-ish initial fermentation temperature will probably leave you some diacetyl to lend a nice buttery background flavor and a bit of slickness on the palate that the bittering and water profile will minimize.
As for carbonation level, I like ESB at a higher-than-cask level, at just a hair under two volumes of CO2. It should still be highly drinkable, but you want to give the customer what they pay for (even when you’re giving it away), and if it’s going to be “extra” anything you might get complaints if they perceive it as thin or watery. Don’t worry: most are used to the gas explosions that most bars crank into their kegs, so even at 1.9 volumes, it will still feel quaint and cask-like!
One final note on process: if you have the capacity, I don’t recommend putting this beer on nitrogen. It will definitely emphasize the round, rich, caramel-and-butterscotch flavors, but it’s a little much. It’s like that one time I had a Lactose Cream Ale: it seems like it should be a good fit, but it ends up being too much of a good thing.
This isn’t your Fuller’s ESB, but it’s a solid version that, with the right ingredients, will re-create the kinds of flavors you’ll find at pubs all over England on any given day, for better or worse! This is a showcase of English malt and hops and pours a beautiful brilliant jewel-toned orange. What more could you ask? Cheers, all.