Extra Special Bitter: Exploring the Unique World of this Classic British Ale

Extra Special Bitter, also known as ESB, is a unique and well-balanced beer style that originated in England. It is known for having a perfect balance between its higher alcohol content and hop character, setting it apart from other beer varieties. The color of an ESB ranges from dark gold to copper, tending to lean more toward the darker end of the scale.

The history of ESBs can be traced to the development of a high-carbon fuel in 1642 made from coal called coke. Coke played a large role in revolutionizing the brewing process; it allowed for the development of more robust and flavorful beers, ESB being one of them. As a result of this development and the resulting development of this new beer recipe, ESB has become one of the most popular beer styles in the United Kingdom and around the world in a short matter of time.

To design a truly authentic ESB recipe, high-quality ingredients such as Maris Otter malt, grown in the UK, are often used. Whether you’re new to the world of ESBs or a longtime fan, you will find that this beer style offers a rich, bold, and enjoyable drinking experience.

What Is Extra Special Bitter?

ESB vs English Bitter

Extra Special Bitter (ESB) is a distinct beer style that is part of the English Bitter family. It is known for its unique balance of hop bitterness and malt flavor. The English Bitter category of beer has three different subcategories: Ordinary Bitter, Best Bitter, or Extra Special Bitter. The main difference between these three styles is their alcohol content.

Characteristics of Extra Special Bitter

ESB is known for its earthy and herbal character, exhibiting medium-to-high levels of hops bitterness, aroma, and flavor. In comparison to other English Bitters, an ESB is characterized by a higher alcohol content and a stronger hoppy bitterness, though the bitterness should not overpower the maltiness.

A typical ESB exhibits the following characteristics:

Medium to high bitterness
Distinctive hop aroma and flavor
Earthy and herbal character
A balance between hop bitterness and malt flavor

Color Range

Extra Special Bitters’ color range leans towards the scale’s darker end. ESBs can have colors ranging from dark gold to copper, with brilliant to good clarity, differentiating them from the lighter hues found in other English Bitter subcategories. The amber tones of ESBs help create a unique and appealing appearance that helps to complement their balanced taste. The head is typically low to moderate, white to off-white, and lacing will be seen on the glass.

Ingredients Used in ESB


Extra Special Bitter (ESB) recipes base grain will usually be a 2-row and, if brewed following a traditional recipe, will be Maris Otter, known for its rich, biscuity flavor. Maris Otter makes up a significant portion, around 80 – 90%, of the grain bill. To add complexity to the beer, specialty malts are also used, such as Caramel/Crystal Malt and Brown Malt. These specialty grains help develop the beer’s color, aroma, and flavor.


ESB are brewed using English hops, which provide a unique bitterness and earthy, floral, or fruity notes. The two most popular hop varieties for brewing an ESB are Fuggle and East Kent Golding. A typical hop addition for a 5-gallon recipe would look like the following: 1 oz of Fuggle pellets added at the start of the 60-minute boil, 0.5 oz of East Kent pellets added 20 minutes before the end of the boil (referred to as the 20-minute mark), and another 0.5 oz of East Kent pellets added at flameout (end of the boil).


Like all beers, the type of yeast used for brewing an ESB is crucial for developing its characteristic flavors. Wyeast #1318, known as London Ale III, is a popular strain of yeast that creates well-balanced fruity esters, good attenuation, and complex flavors that an ESB is known for.


Water chemistry also plays an important role in making a traditional-tasting ESB. The following five ions are the most important to pay attention to when developing an ESB recipe:

Chloride (Cl-)
Calcium (Ca2+)
Magnesium (Mg2+)
Sulphate (SO₄²-)
Sodium (Na+)

They are derived from salts like Epsom salt, gypsum, and sodium chloride. In particular, high sulfate content enhances the sharp bitterness of hops, but be careful not to overdo it, as excessive sulfate will result in a chalky, metallic, or harsh flavor.

Tasting Notes and Aromas

Flavor Profile

Extra Special Bitter (ESB) is known for being a well-balanced tasting beer, usually featuring a moderate to strong bitterness, falling within the range of 30 to 50 IBUs. The flavor profile will include a malt-like flavor of either caramel, toffee, or roasted notes. There may also be hints of biscuit or bready-like flavors and toasty or earthy undertones. The hop character, although typically detectable, will not be overpowering, resulting in a well-rounded and moderately bitter beer.

Aroma Profile

The aroma of an ESB is usually characterized by a low to moderate malt aromas of bready, biscuit, or toasted qualities. Sometimes caramel or toffee aromas may be present, complementing the fruity esters, like orange. Floral and earthy hop aromas may also be present, adding even more depth to the aroma of the beer.

Mouthfeel and Carbonation

In most cases, an ESB will have a moderate mouthfeel, contributing to its drinkability. The carbonation levels are generally considered low to moderate, resulting in most ESBs having low head retention. The lower carbonation level and smooth mouthfeel enhance the overall drinking experience by highlighting the balance between the malt sweetness and hop bitterness.


The finish or aftertaste of an ESB will have a slight but not overpowering bitterness, as well as the possible presence of fruity esters and hints of spice from the hops. A touch of diacetyl, which produces a slightly buttery taste, is sometimes noticeable.

Popular ESB Beers and Breweries

Providing both traditional and innovative takes on an ESB, most fans of craft beers consider these examples as some of the best versions of the ESB style, as they offer a wide range of unique flavors and varying bitterness levels.

Fuller’s ESB

Fuller’s ESB, considered by most to be the benchmark of the style, is a strong bitter ale from Fuller’s Brewery in London. This historic beer is known for having the perfect balance of malt and hops, resulting in a rich and full-bodied taste with an earthy and rustic-tasting character. Fuller’s ESB has a moderate alcohol content and is enjoyed by casual drinkers and beer fans alike due to its unique taste and smooth finish.

Victory Brewing Company

Victory Brewing Company, based in Pennsylvania, makes another of the more popular ESBs on the market called “Old Horizontal,” which is known for having a nice blend of malts and hops, creating a flavorful and enjoyable beer for fans of the style. Having a stronger hop presence which creates more bitterness and bolder flavor than most ESBs, it is a popular choice for those seeking a stronger tasting and somewhat unique ESB.

Other Notable ESBs

Apart from Fuller’s and Victory Brewing Company, numerous other breweries are producing outstanding ESBs. Some popular examples include:

Eagle Brewery: The ESB they brew is known for its hoppy aroma and smooth finish that results in a balanced flavor and constantly gets excellent reviews from ESB fans.

Climax Brewing Company: Their Extra Special Bitter Ale stands out for its earthy and spicy notes while maintaining the traditional qualities an ESB is known for.

Perennial Artisan Ales: Their version of this beer style has a slightly higher bitterness than some of the others but is also considered to have a well-rounded and enjoyable flavor.

Brewery Beer Name Rating
Eagle Brewery ESB 3.95
Climax Brewing Company Extra Special Bitter Ale 3.93
Perennial Artisan Ales ESB 3.97

Brewing Process and Techniques

Gravity and ABV

Extra Special Bitter has an original gravity (OG) range of 1.048-1.060 and a final gravity (FG) range of 1.010-1.016. This results in an alcohol by volume (ABV) of between 4.6% and 6.2%. To produce an ideal balance between the bitterness from the hops and the sweetness from the malt, the bitterness-to-starting gravity ratio (IBU divided by OG) should be between 0.6 and 0.9.

Mashing Process

Regarding the mash, most brewers will start with a base grain of a British pale malt, like Maris Otter. Marris Otter is known for producing the desired biscuit flavor profile that this beer is known for. After the base grain, specialty grains like Crystal 40, Vienna malt, and a small amount of chocolate malt will typically be used in the recipe to add color and caramel flavor, and aroma. The mash temperature should be maintained at around 152°F (66°C) for 60 minutes.

Use of Cask and Carbonation

Although most breweries no longer serve them this way, traditionally, an ESB would be served from a cask, resulting in a different carbonation level and mouthfeel than force-carbonated kegs. When served from a cask, the beer will end up with a soft and natural feeling of carbonation resulting from the secondary fermentation it undergoes. If using kegs, be sure to carbonate at a lower level to replicate the softer, smoother mouthfeel produced by cask-conditioned beers.

Sulfate Levels

Water chemistry will play a significant role when making an extra special bitter. Balancing the sulfate levels in the water profile is essential. Higher sulfate levels can accentuate the hop bitterness, resulting in a sharper and crisper finish. You will also want to keep the sulfate-to-chloride ratio in check in order to avoid overly harsh bitterness levels. A good starting point for sulfate levels in an ESB would be around 150 ppm, aiming for a sulfate-to-chloride ratio between 2:1 and 3:1.

In summary, Extra Special Bitter beers offer a unique drinking experience for beer fans, integrating hops, malts, and a moderate bitter profile. This traditional English ale has found its niche in the modern craft beer movement by providing a refreshing alternative to some of the more potent or heavy brews on the market.

P.S. If you brew your own beer, be sure to pick up your gift of Big Robbs’s top 5 recipes from his brewery; details are on the side of the blog or at the bottom if you are on your phone. Cheers!

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