IPA might be the most common three-letter description you hear in a local brewery these days. Still, I’m looking for a different trio when I check out the menu – ESB.
EBS, Best Bitter, and Ordinary Bitter beers are some of the most satisfying, malt-forward, not-so-bitter (as the name suggests) beers in a wide range of beer styles.
These styles will appear now and then at our local breweries, and it’s usually a treat when they do, much like “Burton Ernie,” recently found at Deadwords Brewing. They also don’t tend to last long on tap, for a good reason. The sweet, light caramel and bready malt notes supported by a distinct but not overpowering bitterness are a balanced, refreshing beer suitable for all seasons.
Just reading the BJCP Guideline’s overall description of each style is enough to get a craving started for a well-made British Bitter:
From the 2021 BJCP Style Guidelines
11A: Ordinary Bitter: Low gravity, alcohol, and carbonation make this an easy-drinking session beer. The malt profile can vary in flavor and intensity but should never override the overall bitter impression. Drinkability is a critical component of the style.
11B: Best Bitter: A flavorful yet refreshing session beer. Some examples can be more malt balanced, but this should be balanced with the overall bitter impression. Drinkability is a critical component of the style.
11C: Strong Bitter (AKA Extra Special Bitter/ESB): An average-strength to moderately-strong British bitter ale. The balance may vary between reasonably even between malt and hops to somewhat bitter. Drinkability is a critical component of the style. Overall it’s a rather broad style that allows for considerable interpretation by the brewer.
These styles seem to pop up more lately at our local breweries. With the growth of big bottle shops in the area, we can sample some commercial examples that help define this style.
For the Ordinary Bitter sub-category, a sharp eye can find Tetley’s Original Bitter on store shelves from time to time. It even caught my eye once in my neighborhood Publix much to my surprise.
Fuller’s London Pride and Timothy Taylor Landlord are commercial examples of the Best Bitter sub-category. Both have been spotted at bigger liquor stores and bottle shops, and both have been spotted on tap at Walt Disney World and Universal Studios.
For the Strong Bitter sub-category, the BJCP Guideline suggests Bass Ale and Samuel Smith’s Organic Pale Ale, both brands of imported beer often found in our area.
And last but not least, the namesake of the unofficial ESB style category, Fuller’s ESB, is the easiest to find of all the examples.
And, of course, the best way to really know the ins and outs of a style is to brew your own and perfect it to your palate.
An excellent place to start is with Craft Beer & Brewing’s “Make Your Best” series. They have a sample recipe for each substyle:
And there are many other resources and recipes online and walk-through videos on YouTube for these styles.
Bitter is a great style that I enjoy drinking as much as I enjoy brewing. If it still needs to be made into your rotation for either, I highly recommend looking into the style further. It’s one that you may find a favorite all around.