The Myth of the ESB (Extra Special/Strong Bitter)

And here’s where the UK of old–very, very old–screwed up some marketing potential. 

The last time I stopped by my local liquor store, I picked up a six pack of Anderson Valley’s Belk ESB.  I’d seen it reviewed a few places, and it got high, high marks.  I’m a fan of Red Hook’s ESB and Yards ESA, and wanted to try some of the higher rated ESBs.  (Still searching for Fuller’s ESB, btw). 

As I was making my purchase, the owner of the store commented on what a good beer it is, and I replied that I’d been really into Bitters lately.  He agreed they’re good beers, but said that a Bitter is their worst seller.  It’s because of the name.  People don’t want to buy something that is specifically labeled a “bitter.”  Brings up memories of those Bitter Beer face commercials, I guess.

People will drink bitter beers–just look at the popularity of IPAs and Double IPAs.  But they don’t want something that is marked Bitter.  Doesn’t sound good.

But here’s the problem.  An ESB is not actually bitter.  In fact, it’s very malty and is probably closer to a Cream Ale, or maybe even a very flavorful lager.  It’s a sweeter beer.  So, why is it called a Bitter, you ask?

Well, here’s where the UK screwed up.  Way back when, if you went into an English pub, you could get a sweet stout.  You know, an Oatmeal or a Milk Stout.  Very popular, and very sweet beers.  Not a hint of bitter at all.  Solid, heavy beers.  The other kind of Ale they had was a lighter malty beer.  Not as sweet as the stouts.  What to call these beers? 

Well, if the stouts were sweet beers… then the other lighter ale must be a Bitter.

Really, really mis-labled.  But still delicious. 

So, if you’re searching for a beer, and want to try something new, don’t hesitate if you come across an ESB.  It’s bitter in name only. 

Try it out.


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