Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

Notes About Fuller’s ESB

By William Brand
Wednesday, August 16th, 2006 at 9:26 am in Uncategorized.

My beer of the week today, Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2006 in the Oakland Tribune and other Bay Area newspapers was Fuller’s ESB. As promised, here are some notes about that venerable, excellent beer, gathered from several sources. If you’re really interested in Fuller’s, my advice is to check out the link beside each excerpt. Salud. b.

From my old columns…

— Fuller’s ESB. ***** Fuller’s Extra Special Bitter or ESB – fostered a style of beer and here in the U.S. most craft brewers offer an ESB in their range. The original is a dark, malty classic. It has a complex aroma, hints of caramel malt, English Goldings hops and an earthy note from the house yeast. The hops come on strong in the follow, along with a haunting, teasing yeast background.


At Fuller’s brewery in Cheswick, on the edge of London, we tasted several “vintages” of Fuller’s 1845, their bottle conditioned, strong ale. The best, I thought, was vintage 1999. It was the only vintage made with Fuggles hops and it has a huge, brandy nose. It deserves to be sampled only in a tulip-shaped brandy glass. There’s still a lot of malt sweetness remaining, proving that this beer is still maturing. It’s great stuff.

A place in history

Fuller’s is owned entirely by the three founding families, the Fullers, the Turners and, I understand, a single Smith heir.

The three-family partnership was created in 1845 to operate a brewery that apparently was founded before 1660.

The brewery is still located on the same site in Cheswick, on the edge of London.

I care mostly about the beer, not the history, but to understand and appreciate the beer, it’s important to understand the history.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, as beer companies began to merge and consolidate, famous, small brewers were dropping like flies.

At the same time the larger brewers decided non-pasteurized ale that matured in casks was cumbersome, non-stable and uneconomical. They rapidly switched to pasteurized keg beer and bottles. By the early 1970s, Fuller’s and Young’s were the only remaining cask beer brewers. Fuller’s was in decline, sales had dropped to 70,000 barrels a year.

Then something remarkable happened. A group of journalists and English beer enthusiasts realized they were on the verge of losing a great tradition: cask ale. They started a revolution, or should I say a “devolution” that became the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA).

It saved Fuller’s and Young’s. “We went from 70,000 barrels and a decline to 200,000 barrels in a short time,” brewery director Richard Turner says.

CAMRA did more than save a couple of breweries — the campaign preserved beers with interesting, unique tastes, concoctions using ancient yeasts and curious malt blends.

Unfortunately, aside from a couple of special festivals, Fuller’s cask ale doesn’t make it to America. But the bottled beers are excellent.

From the Oxford Bottled Beer database

Fuller’s ESB Export
ABV 5.9% _ Vol 500 ml _ bottle _ UK _ Expensive _ Flavour 7.5

This is the bottled version of Fuller’s persistently award-winning cask beer, and is extremely good. The beer is slightly sweet-smelling (a hint of honeysuckle?), with hop flowers dominating a treacley, malty background. On the palate it is bitter-tasting, with a fine balance of lightly roast malt and heavy (but not overstewed) hops resulting in a rich but rounded flavour. It has a lingering honey and bitter malt aftertaste. Overall, the excellence of this beer can be credited to the combination of rich treacley malt character and just the right amounts of aroma and bittering hops (i.e. lots), culminating in a complex, very pleasant pint. Despite its strength, ESB works dangerously well as a session beer.
OBBD reviewer: Sparks

From the Beer Judge Certificate program:

ESB: Medium to high bitterness. Most have moderately low to moderately high fruity esters. Moderate to low hop flavor (earthy, resiny, and/or floral UK varieties typically, although US varieties may be used). Low to medium maltiness with a dry finish. Caramel flavors are common but not required. Balance is often decidedly bitter, although the bitterness should not completely overpower the malt flavor, esters and hop flavor. Generally no diacetyl, although very low levels are allowed.

Medium-light to medium body. Carbonation low, although bottled and canned commercial examples can have moderate carbonation.

Overall Impression:
A flavorful, yet refreshing, session beer. Some examples can be more malt balanced, but this should not override the overall bitter impression. Drinkability is a critical component of the style; emphasis is still on the bittering hop addition as opposed to the aggressive middle and late hopping seen in American ales.

Originally a draught ale served very fresh under no pressure (gravity or hand pump only) at cellar temperatures (i.e. “real ale”). Bitter was created as a draught alternative (i.e. running beer) to country-brewed pale ale around the start of the 20th century and became widespread once brewers understood how to “Burtonize” their water to successfully brew pale beers and to use crystal malts to add a fullness and roundness of palate.

From the Fuller’s Website:

Fuller’s beers have a unique record. Since CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) first held their Champion Beer of Britain competition, Fuller’s have won the Beer of the Year award five times. Our beers have been best in class no less than nine times and ESB has been voted Best Strong Ale an unprecedented seven times making it something of a legend. This is an outstanding achievement by Fuller’s brewers, who, through the use of traditional ingredients, great care in the brewing process and stringent quality controls, continue to produce an unmatched range of prize-winning beers.

/s/ John Keeling, Brewing Director
Fuller, Smith and Turner plc

Also from Fuller’s Website:

Tasting Notes_First brewed in 1971, ESB is unrivaled in flavor and balance. A robust 5.5% alcohol by volume in cask (5.9% alcohol by volume in bottles and kegs), it is brewed from Pale Ale and Crystal malts and from Target, Challenger, Northdown and Goldings hops.

Drew Jefford, the respected UK drinks critic, sums up ESB’s flavor thus: “An ample, grainy-nutty aroma and a broad, authoritative flavor, with lashings of dry marmalade-like bitters”. Renowned beer connoisseur Roger Protz describes “an enormous attack of rich malt, tangy fruit and spicy hops in the mouth, with a profound Goldings peppery note in the long finish and hints of orange, lemon and gooseberry fruit”.

From beerwriter Stephen Beaumont..

Another surprise was furnished by the declaration that ESB, Pride and the standard Chiswick Bitter are all crafted from the same two worts, although combined in decidedly different ways. The way this works is that the brewer takes two runnings from the same bed of grain, the first yielding a more fermentable sugar-rich wort and the latter picking up whatever sugars remain in the grain. These worts are then differently hopped during the boil and combined in varying proportions to create the three ales. Aging times also contribute to the disparate characters of the beers, with Chiswick getting as little as a week, London Pride doubling that and ESB receiving a full month of conditioning. And finally, both ESB and Chiswick are dry-hopped in the fermenter and the cask, while Pride is not.

From Michael Jackson, the Beer Hunter:

If any other ale so deftly balances the sweetness of the barley malt, the dryness of the hop and fruitiness of the yeast, I have yet to find it.

It is the particular procedure in the last stage, the drying, that defines a malt’s taste. The principal malt in most English bitter is slowly “cured” to create a biscuity character. But Fuller’s is one of the breweries that also uses malt “stewed” to a sweeter, crystalline, nutty flavour.

Fuller’s-hops come from Kent, Worcester and Hereford, and the water it uses is fairly low in bicarbonates and higher in chlorides, making for a fuller flavour. The yeast the brewery has used for at least 50 years seems to impart a honey-flower character.

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