What is an ESB Beer? Everything You Need to Know

Do you prefer more balanced and aggressive bitters in a beer? ESB is your next take. If you are wondering what an ESB beer is, it stands for “extra special bitter,” a popularly known style that interplays between hop bitterness and malt. This style’s ales display earthy, an herbal character with a medium to high bitterness, aroma, and flavor.

While the name “extra special bitter” might suggest otherwise, we are delighted that ESB beers’ bitterness is not overpowering. As a matter of fact, we like their delicious taste, warm flavors, and lightness on the palate. It is a fantastic beer to drink while spending some quality time with friends. Are you fired up to know more about ESB? Here we’ve discussed everything you need to know.

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The origin of ESB beer

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Like any other ale, Extra Special Bitter (ESB) and all bitter drinks variations have their start. Back in the day, malts were roasted using peat and wood to infuse them with a smoky, darker character, and that’s why you’ll notice the appearance of ESB beers is gold to dark copper. We undoubtedly believe that the new malt was the origin of the name “pale ale,” which also refers to ESB.

In the 19th century, brewers used “pale ale” as a cover name representing three different bitter strengths and English India Pale Ale (IPA), which is also considered a bitter beer. By the 1800s, the quality of bitter beers started changing drastically due to the increase of brewers around Burton-upon-Trent. Their beers turned light with a strong hop character and a clear and very clean appearance due to calcium sulfate in the water they used.

The bitters’ availability expanded, and the competition increased, establishing fertile grounds for “bitters” to flourish. To date, the only way you can tell the difference between best, ordinary, and extra unique bitters is by the strength of IBU (international bittering unit) and ABV (Alcohol by Volume).

Main Ingredients of ESB beer

Some people might think that it is the water from Burton-upon-Trent that makes an ESB beer, but the key contributor is specialty malts. If you want to brew your ESB beer, it would be great to consider malts like light-colored roast, biscuit, and victory. You wouldn’t also go wrong using a little bit of chocolate and black malts to get a darker color.

Yeast is a must, particularly an English yeast strain. Suppose you’re wondering why bitters are expected to give out flavor and aroma, it is usually produced by yeast. Also, you will need UK hops to get authenticity out of an ESB beer. Otherwise, you’ll end up brewing an American ale hop profile.

What does ESB beer smell/taste like?

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You’ll recognize caramel tones and an excellent malt aroma with the first sip of ESB beer. Since it is made of authentic UK hops, you’ll notice a medium-low to medium-high hop aroma with some fruitiness. Alcohol notes and low sulfur are also recognizable in ESB beer.

The taste contains malt flavors to balance the medium to mid-high bitterness. While the malt offers an intense sweetness of caramel, secondary flavors like bready, toasty, biscuity, nutty, and woody add complexity. ESB beers have moderate to high fruit esters with some floral, resin, and earth qualities.

Different ESB Beer Styles

After trying several ESB beers, we were surprised that although the name suggests extra strong, they are not overpowering. They are well-balanced and drinkable. Since the list of ESB beers is pretty long, we’ll only share a few, which are also our favorites.

1. Naughty Hildegard ESB

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Showcasing a delicate blend of malts and mosaic hops, we could tell that Naughty Hildegard ESB was brewed with the finest ingredients. It is an exceptional beer that contains 6.5% ABV (Alcohol by volume) yet drinkable. When pouring it into a glass, you’ll notice a mildly hazy caramel orange-amber with a bubbly, creamy head at the top.

The aroma is quite welcoming, with some citrus, orange, tangerine, and a floral piney hop fragrance. Next, you’ll taste the sweetness of a malty caramel that slowly transitions into notes of floral hops, orange, and piney bitterness. On top of that, Naughty Hildegard ESB gives a medium mouthfeel that is deliciously refreshing.

2. Portsmouth Hop Harvest

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Hop Harvest is a pleasant ESB created by the Portsmouth brewery. It contains a beautiful balance of fresh wet hops and malt. In terms of appearance, it forms a two-finger head when poured into a glass but slowly reduces into a soft layer. The hazy amber-copper color is quite likable to the eye, mainly due to the clarity when you look through the glass.

We appreciate the beer’s aroma: citrus, herbal, grassy, biscuit, toasted, oatmeal, cracker, and some sweetness. The taste is also impressive as it goes beyond mild bitterness. The mouthfeel is smooth, chewy, medium carbonated, medium-carbonated, and slightly bitter. In general, we think this beer is a pretty lovely ESB that deserves a fair shot.

3. Fuller’s ESB

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Fuller’s ESB is a world’s champion beer and one of the most decorated ales of all time. We are delightful for its smoothness, mellow bitterness, and how full-bodied and robust it is, with an excellently satisfying finish. The aroma is quite noticeable with dark stone fruit and super malty bread.

After tasting, the sweetness of toffee follows up, and a moderately carbonated mouthfeel with a crisp and creamy mild feel gives you a smooth finish. Above all, Fuller’s ESB offers an enjoyable drinking experience, full of well-balanced flavors.

4. Lord Rear Admiral

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This beer was named after Horatio Nelson, the Admiral Lord, so it carries some history. When we tasted this deep amber ale, we noticed the sweetness of complex malt and apricot hoppiness. We also noted biscuit/bread quality and a dry piney finish that left us thirsty for more.

Additionally, it has a pleasant smell of gentle pine and maltiness with a sweet aroma of bready caramel and crushed grains. Something else you’ll appreciate about this ESB beer is the pleasant fresh fruitiness, notes of earthy tea, hints of vanilla, and a touch of spices.

5. York Street

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Great Lakes Brewing Co. makes excellent beers, and York Street is no exception. It is golden in color and forms a fair amount of foam at the body top. We could smell a fantastic fruity, grassy, and bready malts flavor and a balance of hops. The taste is excellent due to caramel, pines, floral, and citrus fruits like orange, peach, lemon, and grapefruit.

In the end, you’ll experience a very smooth mouthfeel with a little carbonation. York Street is also drinkable, probably because it is fruity and well-balanced. We’ll undoubtedly consider retaking it not only for tasting but also for pleasure.

If the question “Which are other ESB beers I can try?” is running in your mind, here is a handy list of them.

Best food pairings of ESB beer

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When combining foods with a hoppy beer like ESB, it is essential to know various flavors of the food and ensure that they are similar to those of the beer. For instance, an English Cheddar can blend perfectly well with the toasty, slightly sweet caramel notes of a beer. We tried this classic combination, and we loved it as the grassy and herbal hops in the beer add some spiciness to the creaminess of the cheese.

From what we know, hops produce bitterness, excellent at balancing spices and spicy foods. Bitter and hoppy beers pair nicely with mouth-coating fats like those in fried foods, cheese, bacon, and sausages. These beers also help to tone down sugars found in earthier ingredients such as carrots and sweet potatoes. In fact, bitter beers bring out intrinsic qualities of these foods, making them taste better.

Another great combination is classic chips & fish with ESB beer. You’ll be impressed by how the bready malt notes in the beer complement the fish’s batter. Besides, malt vinegar tastes better with the sweet notes of caramel, and the mild hops cut through the richness of the dish while adding some grassy, herbal flavors.

Are you still interested in more ideas? You won’t go wrong combining your ESB beer with pork, roast chicken, lamb, barbecue, fried foods, and pizza.


We think ESB beers fill a unique gap in the productions of ales as they’re lighter than any beer drinker would have imagined. They offer an abundance of well-rounded crisps, hops, and malts, resulting in an incredible bitter finish. Overall, this beer style is not overpowering but quite drinkable and can pair nicely with various dishes, especially fatty and spicy meals.

Probably, the only difference between ESB and regular beers is its interplay of hop and malt bitterness. After all, other flavors have so much in common. If you’ve already found interest in this style, you can opt to taste a few, including the ones we have mentioned above. However, you’re not limited since there are many bitters to find on the store shelves. Got a question? Please don’t hesitate to ask.

Tell us: Do you like bitter beers? From what you have learned above, would you give ESB a shot? If yes, let us know what excites you the most.

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