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Fuller’s Extra-Special Bitter

August 9, 2009


Good, But Not Quite Special

Anthony Says:

ESB 1Between their complicated common law system, awful food and backwards driving, the British are pretty much the non-conformists of Europe. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that while lager beer reigns supreme on the continent, Britain has remained a bastion of ale brewing. Yet, in spite of its many contributions in this regard, Britain maintains a dismal reputation amongst North American beer drinkers. It seems that most people here associate British beer with warm tepid cask ale and drunken soccer hooligans running amok. For others like myself, however, it conjures up images of stuffy centuries old pubs and affable working class blokes quaffing pints of “bitter”. And when I think of bitter, Fuller’s ESB is the beer that immediately comes to mind.

ESB pours a copper, reddish brown with a medium white frothy head. The nose is heavy on fragrant malt aromas: scents of grain and sweet brown sugar are accentuated by a mildly grape-like fruitiness. Complex flavors of caramel, raisins and slightly overripe fruit easily match the malty nose. While ESB is quite light in respect to bitter hops character, a zesty herbal spiciness and slightly acrid punch of toasted grains nicely offset the otherwise malt-centric flavor profile. In my opinion, the most interesting part of this brew is the mouthfeel. I’d have expected something a little syrupy for a beer that is this sweet, yet the mouthfeel is full-bodied, nicely crisp and pleasantly smooth and oily in texture.

I can’t really claim to be a huge fan of this style of beer; the combination of sweetness and spice reminds me of something more akin to an autum seasonal or a winter ale. Nevertheless, I can say with conviction that you will be hard pressed to find a better quality bitter than Fuller’s ESB. Probably the greatest testament to the quality of this beer is that it gets better as it warms. Rather than turning into an oppressively sweet malty sludge, the flavors shine through ever brighter. Indeed, it’s perhaps not all that surprising that the British like their bitter served at room temperature.



Gatlin Says:

ESB 2I find the Brits generally have a hard time impressing me when it comes to any sort of pale ale. While this particular brew does have some great qualities, it nevertheless does not score a homerun in my books.

Technical Rundown:

  • Container: Tall Boy can, no widget
  • Alcohol: 5.9% by volume
  • Color: 20 SRM
  • Bitterness: 35 IBU


Out of the can and into a new Spiegelau crystal tasting tulip; there emerges a 1.5 finger, off-white, foamy head. The head stuck around quite nicely and yielded some minor lacing. The body was a light shade of golden mahogany with minimal visible carbonation. Scents of oak, vanilla, old leather, plum and raison or grape came through very nicely in the nose. A minor alcohol smell with some date-like sweetness was also detectable.

The taste of old leather came through strongly when swirled in the mouth. Leather is not a very common beer flavor, but I suspect it is really just a combination of musty / caramelly malts combined with astringent bitterness. The finish was well balanced with pleasantly sweet flavors and a lightly cleansing bitterness.


Some Final Thoughts

Anthony Thinks:

  • Great array of malt flavors
  • Distinct mouthfeel
  • Can be consumed while warm- good outdoors beer


  • A little too sweetish for my liking (although there is no cloying aftertaste)
  • Maltiness dissuades drinking more than one or two
  • Style can generally be off-putting for those used to heavily hopped ales and/or lagers


3½ stars. ESB demonstrates an excellent range of malt flavors. As far as bitters go, this could be a marquee brew for the style. Nevertheless, it is a little too one-dimensional to make for a beer I’d regularly reach for. Recommended for beer drinkers who enjoy complex brews that are slightly sweeter in flavor

Gatlin Thinks:


  • Balanced flavours
  • Very nice appearance
  • Quality craftsmanship


  • Doesn’t really stand out
  • I think one would tire of this beer rather quickly
  • Only available in a can (at least in Canada)


Overall, this is a 3½ star bitter. Some good features here, but not really all that great. For all I know this may very well be the best choice for relaxing after partaking in some typically British activity- anyone who regularly wears a Tillley hat, enjoys foxhunting or plays cricket may “fancy” this beer

So, What’s On Your Mind?

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