How To Brew Extra Special Bitter(ESB) | Homebrew Challenge

by Steve Thanos | Last Updated: September 10, 2020

Extra Special Bitter is best known as ESB. While researching this style, I was surprised to learn that English bitters have their start with coke development around 1642. “Coke is a high carbon fuel made from coal.

Coke is a grey, hard, and porous fuel with high carbon…made by hearing coal or oil in the absence of air.

Prior to this coke development, malts were roasted using wood and peet, which inevitably gave the malt some smokey character and dark color. The new fuel made it possible to create lighter malt, both in color and character, without the dreaded smokiness.

The Convoluted Pale

The term pale ale was utilized due to the pale color of this new malt. By the 19th century, pale was a rather blanketed term that referred to the three different strengths of English bitters and English IPA. Such a simple term proved to be convoluted and rather confusing.

The Water of Burton-upon Trent 

The rise of brewers around Burton-upon Trent helped to dramatically change the quality of the bitters being brewed. The water in the area was high in calcium sulfate giving the beer a vibrant, clear appearance with a robust hop character.

Style Profile for Extra Special Bitter

Appearance

Pale amber to medium copper color. Brilliant to good clarity. Low to moderate white to off-white head. Low carbonation results in little head retention.

Aroma

Low to moderate malt aroma. Low to medium-low caramel aroma. Bready, biscuit, or light toast complexity is very common with the style. Mild to moderate fruitiness. Hop aroma can range from medium-low to medium.

The hop aroma that may arise will be floral, earthy, resiny, and or fruity character. Usually no diacetyl is detected. Some examples of the style can have low sulfur and/or alcohol notes.

Mouthfeel

Medium-light to full body. Low carbonation, but some packages versions have moderate carbonation.

Taste

Mid- high bitterness. Moderately low to moderately high fruity esters.

Moderate hop flavor, usually earthy, resiny, fruity, and/or floral. Low to medium maltiness with a very dry finish. The malt profile is bready, biscuity, or lighty toasty. Low to moderate caramel or toffee flavors may exist.

Food Pairing

The toasty, lightly sweet caramel notes pair well with an English Cheddar. Traditionally speaking, a classic Fish and Chips pairs wonderfully with the batter of the fish.

The sweet caramel characteristics of the beer will add a nice contrast to the malt vinegar usually used in this dish. Roasted chicken or duck will also pair nicely with a nice Bitter.

Tips for Brewing your own Extra Special Bitter 

Grain

Usually a good Extra Special Bitter starts and ends with a good British pale malt. In this case Maris Otter as your base malt is your best choice. Maris Otter lends itself to the biscuit flavor that you should be after with this beer.

After your base malt, a British crystal malt should be also considered. Dark crystal will give the caramel and toasty/roasty tones while lighter crystal malt will give sweeter caramel character. Keep the crystal malts in the 5-10% range.

Also keep the lovibond from 10 to 150L. Going any darker will make the beer too heavy and sweet. Just another note on speciality malts. Biscuit, Victory and light colored Roast malt can all be considered. Chocolate malts can be used to darken the beer up a lit. If using dark malts, keep it to an ounce or two per five gallons.

Hops

When considering the hops, you need to forget the American notion of a “bitter beer.” 30-50 IBU for this beer should be plenty. Using English hops would only be proper. Hops such as Fuggle, East Kent Golding is what you should consider.

Yeast

Researching your yeast will really pay off in the end when it comes to brewing your own Extra Special Bitter.

Some British yeast strains can be neutral and others can be more estery, others ferment dryer, and some leave some residual sweetness. Some yeast to consider include:

Wyeast 1275 Thames Valley Ale

Wyeast 1318 London Ale III

White Labs Burton Ale ALP023

Water

Beer purists will say an ESB is an ESB due to the Burton-upon-Trent water. Sulfates do enhance the bitter perception of the beer. Knowing your water profile can really help you to determine what water treatments you should add to your beer.

No matter where you start, keep in mind the breakdown of Burton-upon-Trent water profile:

  • Calcium — 295.0 ppm
  • Chlorine — 25.0 ppm
  • Sodium — 55.0 ppm
  • Sulfate — 725.0 ppm
  • Magnesium — 45.0 ppm
  • Bicarbonate — 300.0 ppm

Extra Special Bitter By the Numbers

  • Color Range: 6 – 16 SRM
  • Original Gravity: 1.048 – 1.060 OG
  • Final Gravity: 1.010 – 1.016 FG
  • IBU Range: 30 – 40
  • ABV Range: 4.6 – 6.2%

Martin Keen’s Extra Special Bitter Recipe

Grain

87% 5 lbs Maris Otter

9% 8 oz Caramel/Crystal Malt – 80L

4% 4 oz Brown Malt

Hops

1.00 oz Fuggle Pellets – Boil 60.0 min

0.50 oz East Kent Pellets – Boil 20.0 min

0.50 oz East Kent Pellets – Boil Flameout

Yeast

1.0 pkg London Ale III WYeast #1318

Mash at 152°F (66°C) for 60 mins

Boil for 60 mins

Transcript: When it comes to beloved British beers, you can’t go wrong with an ESB or extra special, better. It combines a rich caramel sweetness with a fresh, hoppy backbone to create a beautifully balanced and easy drinking beer. We’re going to brew one up on an absolutely no-prep brew day so we can see exactly how long this all takes.

So let’s get started.

Hi, I’m Martin Keen. I’m taking The Homebrew Challenge to brew 99 beers in 99 weeks. Today, I am brewing an ESB it’s categorized actually by the BJCP guidelines as a “strong bitter”, which was a change made in 2015. I believe because Fuller’s own the ESB trademark, but regardless of all that we’re brewing ESB.

Now today’s brew is a no prep brew day. And what I mean by that is normally before I start brewing, I’ve done a little bit of preparation ahead of time.

Now, sometimes I’ve split a brew day across multiple days. Example: So it’s 9:00 PM. Monday night. Let’s get started by measuring out some ingredients,…

But typically with every brew day, I’ll do a little bit of prep up front. So normally I will create a yeast starter a few days ahead of brew day. And then the night before brew day, I will measure all my ingredients and get the water in my kettle. Today, I ain’t done none of that. This is no prep whatsoever, but it does give us the opportunity then to really see how long a brew day is going to take end to end using my claw hammer supply system.

So let’s, uh, let’s get the timer running again. And the first task is to start heating up some water right here on my kettle.

I don’t go crazy with the water salts, but I just try to make sure that I have everything balanced that I need for this. I’m using calcium chloride, gypsum and Epsom salt. I’m going to add this into the water, along with a bit of lactic acid to get the pH where I want it to be for the mash.

With the hoses on and the water salt added, let’s get this sucker heated up. We’re looking to brew a beer here of a original gravity of 1.059, which is going to give a beer of about 5.8%. Now to get there lets take a look at the ingredients we’re going to use. This is the third of the British bitters that I’ve been brewing and they have all consisted of three ingredients in the grist. The first two of which are always the same, and that’s going to be the case with this beer as well.

So the main base malt that I’m using is Maris Otter, and I’m using 87% of that. The second malt that’s been common to all of these beers that is crystal 80. And in this beer, I’m going to use 9% of crystal 80.

As for the final ingredient. When I did the ordinary bitter, I used victory malt for that kind of bready toastiness that we can get from that. For the best bitter, I changed that to pale chocolate malt, just to add a little bit more of a, sort of a dark roasty flavor to that beer.

For this one, for the ESB, the third ingredient is going to be English Brown, malt, 4% of that. And that’s really to bring in some of those wonderful properties you get from English Brown malt that just sort of toasty bready characteristic. And I think that will come through in the final beer.

My goodness, all this stuffing around and getting the ingredients done and mills reminds me why I try to do this ahead of time. We are now 42 minutes into brew day already. The water has been at strike temperature for quite a while. So let’s get this in and start the mash. We’re going to do a 60 minute mash looking to get to a pre boil gravity of 1.039.

Well, I’ve been mashing for 45 minutes now, and I’m already at my expected pre boil gravity. So I’m just going to stop the mash there. Um, I am going to set this to 168 Fahrenheit for a quick mash out. That’s a step I don’t always do, but give them mashed finished earlier. I figured why not? And then I’ll bring it up to boil.

Now an ESB can be pretty high in IBU’s. The style guidelines allow up to 50 IBU. I’m going to go with 45. And the way I’m going to do is a combination of fuggle hops and East Kent Golding. So fuggle hops are my bittering hops. These are going in at 60 minutes. This should give me about 33 IBU of bitterness is an ounce, uh, based on the batch size that I’m doing. Flavor and aroma then is going to come from East Kent Golding. I spent a one ounce bag. So I’m expecting to get 11 IBU out of best, which I’m going to put in after 20 minutes. And then at flame out, I will add the remainder of my East King Golding hops.

And this is approaching boiling now. So we’re ready to get started and for about two hours in. I’m done with the boil. So just add in my last little batch of East Kent Golding and kill the heat. And now I’m going to start the cooling process, which for me, is using this plate chiller.

So first of all, just to sanitize the plate chiller while this is still super hot, I’m going to re circulate. Because this is such a small batch. It really chills this stuff down quickly. I want to get down to 68. So, uh, let’s, let’s see how long it takes to get to 68F. Well, that’s how long it took eight minutes to cool this down.

How to Make a Vitality Starter

Now I mentioned that I didn’t make a yeast starter. In fact all I’ve got is a little bit leftover from a big year starter that I made a few weeks ago of London Ale 3 yeast. This is the yeast I want to use, but don’t have a whole lot of it. So what I’m going to do is I’m going to make a vitality starter.

So I have stolen about one liter of the wort, and I’m going to put the yeast into here and run it for a few hours. And hopefully that will get the yeast started. And at that point, then I will add it into the bigger batch. And the idea of being here we don’t want to shock the yeast with just giving it this glorious garden of sugar everywhere. We’re going to just give it a small amount first, get it started and then add it into the batch.

So the rest of the beer is now in the fermentor. And then I have my little vitality starter, which I’m just going to run for a few hours and then pour this all in. Now I do still have some cleanup to do, and I’m going to cover cleanup separately in another video, but I’m basically done with my brew.

How long did it take to go from having nothing prepared to having at least Wort in a fermenter? That’s how long? About three and a half hours. So I’m going to come back at a couple of hours and add that vitality starter in, put the beer in my feminization chamber. Then I’m done just a case of waiting a few weeks for the tasting.

How To Brew Extra Special Bitter(ESB) Homebrew Challenge 2

So we have reached the thrilling conclusion of the English bitters trilogy. Okay. Now we’ve moved on to extra special bitter. So we started with ordinary bitter, which was the lightest of the beers. Then we moved on to best spitter, which is a bit stronger. And then this one is 5.4%. So it’s a point stronger still. Yeah, I know it’s still not very strong, but as far as English drinks go, it’s a little higher.

Um, so far, what has been your favorite? Uh, ordinary better or best bitter? I think best bitter was my favorite actually had my more of a taste to it. Yeah. Yeah. I really, really liked the best bitter. So this is a beer style though, that I very much enjoy ESB.

Have you had any ESBs? I have. I can’t remember any of like the breweries apart from Fullers. I’ve been to Fortnite. (local brewery) Right? So, so our local brewery here does a really good ESB. Yeah. So this beer has got a lot to live up to.

So let’s take a look at the coloring. First of all, quite Amber. Oh, it’s a lot paler than the, um, the last one, the best bitter. That’s it? Yeah. So for aroma that see what we get with that. To me, this does smell good bit different from the, from the best bitter and smells like toast. Yeah. It’s very, very bready. Uh, Brown berady. Yeah. It smells like, like, yeah. Brown bread has been in the toaster. I’m like setting five. Very precise description. All right.

Let’s go for the taste. To me. It tastes very much like it smells it’s um, very Brown bready kind of flavor to it that I’m getting. Yeah. That’s like level seven. Taste-wise on this toaster scale. It smelled like a five, tastes like a seven. Well, I’m sorry, this being the end. I think we have to do this again. So, uh, I’m really chuffed how well, these British bitters have come off.

Cheers. Bob’s your uncle.

I am the former President of my homebrew club, Plainfield Ale and Lager Enthusiasts (PALE) in the western suburbs of Chicago, IL. I brew on my BIAB system with my incredibly patient and understanding wife, adorable 9 year old daughter, and 12 year old brew dog.