The Balance of Extra Special Bitter

When it comes to British , few styles are as iconic and beloved as the Extra Special , commonly referred to as ESB. This beer style, known for its perfect balance of sweetness and hop bitterness, has been enjoyed by beer enthusiasts for decades. In this article, we will delve into the fascinating world of ESB and explore its origins, flavor profile, and techniques.

Origins and History

The story of ESB begins in the United Kingdom, where it emerged as a variation of the traditional English pale . The term “bitter” refers to the hop bitterness that characterizes this style. Despite its name, ESB is not excessively bitter but rather strikes a harmonious balance between malt and hop flavors.

ESB gained popularity in the mid-20th century when it became a staple in British pubs. Its rich history and association with traditional British brewing make it a true symbol of the country's beer culture.

Flavor Profile

ESB is known for its complex and nuanced flavor profile. On the malt side, you can expect a deep, caramel-like sweetness with hints of toffee and biscuit. This maltiness provides a solid foundation for the beer, adding depth and richness to the overall taste.

The hop bitterness in ESB is typically moderate to high, but it is not overpowering like in some other beer styles. English-variety are used, which impart earthy and herbal notes to the brew. This hop character is what sets ESB apart from other pale ales and adds a distinct British touch to the flavor profile.

Brewing Techniques

To brew a great ESB, brewers need to pay careful attention to both the malt and hop components. The choice of malt is crucial, with English pale malts being the go-to option. These malts provide the desired sweetness and contribute to the beer's rich color.

In terms of hops, traditional English varieties such as Fuggles and Goldings are commonly used. These hops have a more subtle and nuanced flavor compared to their American counterparts, which aligns perfectly with the balanced nature of ESB.

Fermentation plays a significant role in developing the desired flavors and aromas in ESB. English Ale is typically used, as it imparts fruity esters and adds complexity to the beer. The fermentation process is often carried out at relatively cool temperatures to preserve the delicate flavors and ensure a clean finish.

Pairing and Enjoyment

ESB is a versatile beer that pairs well with a variety of dishes. Its maltiness and hop bitterness make it a great match for hearty pub fare such as fish and chips, shepherd's pie, and bangers and mash. The caramel and toffee notes in ESB also complement desserts like sticky toffee pudding or bread pudding.

When it comes to serving ESB, it is best enjoyed at cellar temperature, around 50-55°F (10-13°C), which allows the flavors to fully develop. The beer's carbonation level is typically moderate, adding a refreshing effervescence without overpowering the palate.

ESB is a remarkable beer style that showcases the best of British brewing traditions. Its perfect balance of malt sweetness and hop bitterness makes it a delight for beer enthusiasts seeking a flavorful and well-rounded pint. Whether you're a fan of English ales or simply looking to expand your beer horizons, a glass of ESB is sure to satisfy your taste buds and transport you to the heart of British beer culture.

What Is An Extra Special Bitter Beer?

An extra special bitter (ESB) beer is a style known for its balanced combination of malt and hop bitterness. It is classified as an English pale ale and is characterized by its earthy and herbal hop character, typically using English-variety hops. ESBs have a medium to high level of hop bitterness, flavor, and aroma, which are key elements of the style. The malt and hop flavors in an ESB work together to create a harmonious and enjoyable drinking experience.

What Defines ESB Beer?

ESB beer, which stands for Extra Special Bitter, is an English-style pale ale that is known for its balanced combination of malt sweetness and hop bitterness. This classic beer style is characterized by its rich, full-bodied flavor profile and its ability to showcase the best of both malt and hop characteristics.

Here are some key defining characteristics of ESB beer:

1. Malt sweetness: ESB beer is known for its prominent malt sweetness. The malt used in brewing ESBs typically imparts flavors of caramel, toffee, and biscuit, giving the beer a rich and slightly sweet taste.

2. Hop bitterness: Despite its name, ESB beer is not overly bitter. The hop bitterness in ESBs is balanced with the malt sweetness, resulting in a beer that is well-rounded and not overly hop-forward. The hop bitterness adds a pleasant, refreshing element to the beer.

3. Goldings hops: ESB beer is traditionally brewed using Goldings hops, which are a type of English hop known for their floral, earthy, and slightly spicy characteristics. These hops contribute to the overall flavor and aroma profile of ESB beer, adding a subtle complexity.

4. English Ale yeast: ESB beer is typically fermented with English Ale yeast, which imparts unique flavors and aromas to the beer. This yeast strain is known for producing fruity esters and a slightly buttery or nutty character, which can complement the malt and hop flavors in ESBs.

ESB beer is an English-style pale ale that strikes a balance between malt sweetness and hop bitterness. It is known for its rich, full-bodied flavor profile, with flavors of caramel, toffee, and biscuit from the malt, and floral, earthy notes from the Goldings hops. The use of English Ale yeast adds additional complexity to the beer.


Extra special bitter (ESB) is a classic English-style pale ale that is known for its balanced combination of malt sweetness and hop bitterness. Despite its name, ESBs are not overly bitter, but rather showcase a harmonious interplay between the two flavor profiles.

ESBs typically have a medium to high hop bitterness, flavor, and aroma, which are often characterized by earthy and herbal notes from English-variety hops. The malt character in ESBs provides a solid backbone with a subtle sweetness that complements the hop bitterness.

The ESB style is categorized into different subtypes based on their strength. Standard or ordinary bitters are the weakest, while best, special, or premium bitters have a slightly higher content. ESBs, or extra special/strong bitters, can reach up to 6% ABV but commonly fall within the 5% range.

When it comes to appearance, ESBs can vary in color, often leaning towards a deeper hue. However, the emphasis is more on the quality and strength of the beer rather than its color.

To brew an authentic ESB, English Ale yeast is typically used, along with English hops such as Goldings. This combination contributes to the distinct characteristics and flavors associated with the style.

ESBs are appreciated for their well-balanced nature and the skill required to achieve the perfect equilibrium between malt and hop bitterness. Whether you're a fan of traditional English ales or simply enjoy a flavorful beer with a touch of bitterness, an extra special bitter is a style worth exploring.

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Thomas Ashford

Thomas Ashford is a highly educated brewer with years of experience in the industry. He has a Bachelor Degree in Chemistry and a Master Degree in Brewing Science. He is also BJCP Certified Beer Judge. Tom has worked hard to become one of the most experienced brewers in the industry. He has experience monitoring brewhouse and cellaring operations, coordinating brewhouse projects, and optimizing brewery operations for maximum efficiency. He is also familiar mixology and an experienced sommelier. Tom is an expert organizer of beer festivals, wine tastings, and brewery tours.