An Extra Special Bitter or ESB for short is a unique style of English Pale Ale that despite being known for having a stronger hop and malt profile then other English Pale Ales are in actuality a nicely balanced beer style.
Creating an Extra Special Bitter recipe is a unique experience in that although it does have a fairly complex grain bill that provides for significant malt character as well as having a fair amount of bitterness from its hops, it is in fact a highly drinkable beer.
It’s color is typically a bit darker than other bitters with a lower level of carbonation; and contrary to popular belief due in no small part to its name, an ESB is not a bitter tasting beer.
In this post we are going to review this beer’s style profile and characteristics, the ingredients that go into making it, as well as providing you with a recipe and brewing instructions to be able to make your own delicious version of this ale.
Characteristics of a ESB
Appearance – The color is typically copper, however it’s darkness can change from lighter to medium-high copper depending on the recipe; sometimes you will even find more golden colored versions however these are usually referred to as American ESB’s.
It is a clear beer that has a lower level of carbonation. Head retention depends on the brewers preference, I actually prefer a decent head in my recipes, but traditionally the head is lower with little retention.
Flavor – In my opinion you can not brew a true ESB without having malt flavors present. The light to medium biscuit and bread flavors are important factors in the make up of this beer. The presence of toffee or caramel flavors is acceptable although they should be light.
Flavors imparted from the hops will also be light to medium and present themselves as the herbal and earthy flavors you would expect from English hops. There is no bitter aftertaste and will have a finish that is medium dry.
Mouthfeel – The mouthfeel is not quite full bodied but not far off. Different versions will have varying levels of mouthfeel but typically they will fall into the range of medium to light-full. From time to time you will come across versions of this ale that are higher in alcohol and bring with them the expected warming sensation.
Aroma – A good ESB recipe will provide for a moderate malty aroma that will present itself as biscuity or bready. Some versions of this style will also have a light caramel or toffee aroma present as well. Any hop aroma that is present will come from the English hop varieties typically used in this recipe; which will present as being earthy or herbal in nature.
The hop aroma will be low to medium and does not typically overpower the malt characteristics. Diacetyl which smells like buttery popcorn should never be present.
6 Tips to Brew a Perfect Batch
Tip #1 – Deciding Which Grains to Use:
When choosing which grains to use to build your recipe you want to start with an English pale malt; typically Maris Otter will be the choice for most brewers, however even though Golden Promise is actually a Scottish pale malt it is also a great option. They will both impart the bready or biscuit-like characteristics that you want your base grain to bring to this beer.
Once you have decided on your base grain it is time to decide whether you are going to add specialty grains and if so which ones. There are plenty of examples of this style of beer that use only English pale malt in its grain bill. However if you want to brew a traditional bitter you should at least include some crystal malt in order to have your beer display the caramel characteristics this beer is known for.
Choosing which crystal malt to include in your recipe is an important decision that will impact the characteristics of your beer significantly. When designing your ESB recipe there is a wide range of crystal malts that can be used that are considered acceptable for this style, anywhere from Crystal 10 – 150 L. Your decision will depend on what flavor you are striving for.
If you are looking for a lighter more sweet caramel taste then stick with the lighter crystal options. If you like your ESB to lean more towards having a richer, more roasted caramel flavor use the darker options; but stay under 150 L or the caramel will become too overpowering for this style. Keep the crystal malts to under 10% of the total grain bill.
Although you do not need them to make a great bitter, other specialty malts can be used to add a little more breadiness flavor. Common examples would be special roast, biscuit and Victory. For a 5 gallon batch keep these grains to around 0.5 – 1 lb.
If you want to darken the color of your beer somewhat it is acceptable to use 1 – 2 ounces of chocolate or black malts. But do not exceed this amount, the purpose of these grains is to darken the color without impacting the taste.
Tip #2 – Choose the Right Hops:
The first step in understanding the proper hops and additions to use is to understand that even though the term “bitter” is in the name of this beer it is not what the modern beer drinker would consider a bitter beer. Although we do want some hop bitterness present we do not want it to overpower the malt characteristics that are so important to this style. You will find that most versions of this beer keep their IBU’s under 50 and closer to 30.
I would also highly recommend that you use English hops. Although you will find some recipes that have American hops this is an exception and not the norm. A proper ESB will typically use one or a combination of Fuggles, East Kent Goldings, Challenger or Target.
For hop additions I recommend you do your bittering addition at the start of the boil, then do another addition at the 5 min mark or flameout. You can also dry hop this beer if you like. If you decide to do so, reduce the amount of hops you use at the 5 min mark and keep the amount of dry hops between ½ – 1 ounce for a 5 gallon batch.
Tip #3 – Using an English Yeast Strain is a Must:
You have probably noticed that there is a trend forming here, English style beer using English ingredients. Although you can mix and match a bit with the grain and hops you use, when it comes to the yeast you do not have that liberty; using an English yeast strain is crucial to this style.
Yeast plays a much larger role in the creation of a beer’s taste and aroma than most people realize. Not all yeasts are created equal by any means. English yeast strains are lower attenuating which makes for a sweeter beer; this helps create the proper balance between hop bitterness and malt sweetness that we are looking for.
Any English yeast will do the trick, some of the more common yeasts used to brew Bitters are:
- Safale S-04
- Nottingham Ale Yeast
- White Labs WLP002
- Wyeast 1968 London ESB Ale Yeast
- White Labs WLP023 Burton Ale
Tip #4 – Don’t Worry About Your Water:
There is no question that if you are die hard fan of a traditional Extra Special Bitter you are not too pleased that I just said that. But staying very much in line with the theme of this blog of making beer easy, my thoughts on adjusting your water is to first try the beer without making any water adjustments. If you like how the beer turns out you are all set. If you don’t then next time consider adjusting your water.
In the case of an ESB as long as your water is not too soft your beer is going to turn out just fine. If your water is soft then the easy way to adjust it is to simply add a little bit of gypsum to your mash. 2 – 3 grams per gallon will do the trick.
For a more detailed explanation on adjusting your water you can check out this post: The best water for brewing beer.
Tip #5 – Keep the Carbonation Level Low:
Traditional bitter carbonation levels should be similar or just slightly higher then what you would expect to see from a beer poured from a cask, meaning the carbonation is low. So if you are kegging keep it between 1.5 to 2 volumes of CO2, and if you are bottling use 3/4 a cup of corn sugar (dextrose).
Tip #6 – Serving Temperature:
As a craft beer fan I am sure you have come to realize that unlike commercial beers, craft beers should not be served as cold as possible. This is because colder temperatures have a negative effect on our ability to be able to pick up some of the taste and aroma characteristics of the beer.
Due to the complex nature of an ESB this philosophy holds even more true, you should serve your ESB as close as possible to 50 – 55 degrees Ferenhegiht.
Extra Special Bitter Recipe (All Grain)
This recipe is called “In the Drink” which is a play on words from World War II that pilots used as an expression for when one of them crashed into the water (drink) near the brewing town of Burton-on-Trent, which is famous for brewing Extra Special Bitter.
Original Gravity: 1.052
Final Gravity: 1.013
- 10.5 lb Maris Otter
- 0.5 lb Crystal 20 L
- 0.25 lb Victory Malt
- 0.25 lb Special Roast
- 0.25 lb Crystal 90 L
- 1 oz Target (60 mins)
- 1 oz Fuggles (5 mins)
- 1 oz Fuggles (Dry Hop – 4 days)
- Safale S-04 (or any English Ale Yeast)
- Mash crushed grains at 152 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Sparge with 170 degree water.
- Bring the kettle to a boil.
- Add the first hop addition at the start of the boil.
- Add a whirlfloc tablet at the 20 min mark.
- Add 2nd hop addition at the 5 min mark.
- Chill wort to yeast pitching temperature.
- Transfer wort to your sanitized fermenter.
- Pitch the yeast.
- Ferment for 2-3 weeks.
- Cold crash for 2 – 3 days
- Bottle or Keg and enjoy!
Where to Get Your Ingredients & Equipment
Our recommended online vendors have all of the listed ingredients and also carry ESB all grain beer kits that are also a great option to try. When you order from them it actually supports this site because at no additional cost to you they send us a fee for referring you. The support is appreciated! You can see the full list of recommended vendors here: Home brewing supplies online.
Since this is an all grain ale, for equipment besides the standard fermenter and bottles you are going to need all grain brewing equipment. I brew on the all-one-brewing systems. I find them to be the simplest and most cost efficient brewing method, and they make great beer. You can learn more about these systems here: Electric BIAB
There you go my friend you are all set to go and brew your own ESB; if you brew this recipe be sure to let me know what you think of it. And if you have any questions drop them in the comment section and I will be sure to get back to you.
Now go get your brew awwnn…
Cheers Big Robb is Out!
P.S. If you want more of my beer recipes you have two options to get them:
Option 1 is to check out the following page where I list many of my recipes: Home brewing recipes.
Option 2 is to sign up on the side of the blog or the bottom on a smart device to get free access to my top 5 favorite beer recipes of all time. (they are not found in option 1) Enjoy!