DRAFT PICKS: The bitter truth

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
And there are plenty more. Enjoy.

K.U.A. Extra Pale Ale Paw Paw Brewing Company Paw Paw

There are some great things coming out of Paw Paw. I’ve yet to visit the brewery, but have heard good reviews about a place that is really working to be not only a local pub, but a place where people can meet, greet and gather with friends. And the brews being produced by head brewer Trevor Klimek — a Big Rapids expatriate — are quite exceptional. Recently, a couple bottles of Paw Paw’s K.U.A. Extra Pale Ale walked in the front door of the Pioneer . Yes! You heard me! This is a finely blended beer with considerable hoppiness while still managing to be muted and not overly aggressive. The beer pours a rich amber color with a slight but nicely formed head of foam that is quite creamy both in texture and in color. The head disappears pretty quickly leaving just a hint of lacing. As with many brews of this genre, the malt and grain base is very settled — a sturdy, yet quiet stage for the much more expressive citrus and floral scents that carry this pale ale. The aroma promises a well balanced tasting, and explorers will not be disappointed at first sip. The hops are very much in evidence. Still, the brewer chose his hops carefully and there is a wonderfully refreshing blend of citrus and floral (mildly herbal), that dominate other tones of light caramel and malt in the very best of ways. Despite a relatively high IBU count, this is not a bitter EPA in the least. Not to my taste. This is a wonderful summertime beer, without being specifically produced as a summer seasonal. As regular readers know, I lean toward the more malt forward brews. Having said that, I enjoyed the floral fruitiness, and the well-defined citrusy hops in Paw Paw’s K.U.A. It is a great example of a carefully considered Extra Pale Ale. The mouth-feel was just right, with not too much carbonation mugging your mouth. There is a good bit of aftertaste — or finish — that lingers a while. But again, in the most pleasant way. A strong salute to Klimek for his work in Paw Paw. The team are turning out noteworthy brews.

Scarlet Lady ESB Stoudts Brewing Co. Adamstown, Penn.

This Extra Special Bitter is very nicely presented — from label to first pour. Scarlet Lady isn’t necessarily scarlet or even red, but rather more coppery in color and offering up a well-developed half inch of head that is in evidence throughout the sampling. Nice! From the first sniff, the “bitter” aspects of this brew are pretty up front. There is certainly a malty base (with tones of bread and yeast), but there is an almost tart aroma backed by an almost mysterious blend of earthiness and souring fruits. This may not be the most “romantic” or attractive description — but oddly enough ... the scent was very attractive. Different. At first wash, there was an almost deceptive sweetness to this brew. Scarlet Lady is packed with flavor — everything you might expect after the scenting, and more. Sure, the maltiness is there, but more as a supporting actor. There was a finely tuned blend of more tart and fruity elements (green apples?), and a hearty feel of a certain earthiness (tannins?). This beer is very much in the same school as some of the English bitters, but actually much more acceptable to my taste. The brewers have taken the best concept of a good bitter, and muted it for the American palate and have come up with a really nice, somewhat “tangy” but quite refreshing beer. In mouth-feel, this is not too ... er ... busy. Rather, I find it very drinkable, and would easily suggest it for a tasting session. Scarlet Lady has a dry finish, which I found to be a pleasant change from many, if not most of the American beers (including crafts), which often tend to end up a bit more “sweet.” I enjoyed this a lot, although truth be known, I don’t have a lot of experience in this style of beer so my comparables are a bit lacking. Highly recommended — at least for a sampling.