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One of the beers we review today is an E.S.B. — an Extra Special, or Extra Strong Bitter. Bitters are really the stuff of brewing legend. The term stirs up images of gnarled factory workers leaving the foundry in England and heading for their “local” to order up a pint of bitter. Bitter is not a overly popular style of beer in these United States, but I think that is more because it just isn’t being produced as much as are other more popular “standards.” In addition, many beer drinkers may not even know they are drinking a “bitter.” To most easily explain what bitter beers are (and of course please accept that I write in generalities because there are too many fine points to even begin discussing), bitter ale and pale ales were often the same thing. Back in the dark and mysterious days of early brewing, brewers sometimes referred to their product as one thing while the consumer called it another. So too with English pale ales and bitter. The brewers called it pale ale. The guys at the bar were asking for a pint of bitter. Generally speaking, the term bitter referred to the pale ales that were more generously “hopped.” Those that were more malt-forward were considered mild ales. To wit, in very general terms, English pale ales with more hefty doses of hops, and many India Pale Ales (that have a strong hoppiness as well), are often tagged as bitters. Extra Special/Strong Bitters are usually a bit “beefier” than pale ales and mild bitters. There is a more herbal and even astringent quality to them. But, please note and note well: Bitters, including ESBs, are most often not “bitter.” They are more herbal — possibly — and more hoppy — most likely. But they are not as bitter, sour or tart as are many lambics or sour beers. Don’t be put off by the name. Give them a try. Some or the more popular “bitters” as suggested by the good folks at Beer Advocate include:
- Hobgoblin — Wychwood Brewery Company Ltd
- Redhook ESB — Redhook Ale Brewery
- Sawtooth Ale — Left Hand Brewing Company
- Harvest Ale — Southern Tier Brewing Company
- 2 Below Winter Ale — New Belgium Brewing
- Harvest Ale — Goose Island Beer Co.
- Shipyard Old Thumper — Shipyard Brewing Co.
- Bitch Creek ESB — Grand Teton Brewing Co.
- Boont ESB — Anderson Valley Brewing Company