How to make an ESB (Extra Special/Strong Bitter)

by Brewing beer

I remember travelling to England for the first time.  I landed in Gatwick about 7 am local time.  Completely jetlagged, I barely knew where I was, but to “adjust” to the European time zone I needed to stay awake for the rest of the day.  How do I stay up?  I headed for the nearest pub, of course!

OK, so maybe it wasn’t the best plan adding alcohol to an already exhausted body, but I had limited time in London.  I was leaving the next day for Norway, so I needed to experience as much as I could in the short time allowed.

I remember it well, because at the time my most “exotic” beer was Samuel Adams – I was young.  I really didn’t know what to order, so the girl behind the bar poured an ESB.   I’m not sure why she picked this style. Maybe she was trying to scare the American with a beer which actually had flavor.  Wow, the beer was really good!  It was far bitterer than any beer I had ever had before, but it also had a nice caramel sweetness.  I’m not sure, but it might even have been my first real ale.


Here's a selection of commercial examples of ESBs

All about the ESB

Bitters and pale ales really are the same beer, and ESBs are just a specific type of bitter.  The BJCP style guidelines break the beers into different categories, however if you look at the style guidelines you will see very little difference between the different beers.  There is some difference in the color between the different beers and pale ales end to have more hop aroma, but everything else is almost identical.  ESB beers are slightly more bitter than other bitter styles and contain a bit more alcohol (about 1% more on average).

The pale ales also tend to be lighter in color than bitters, but it is not unusual to have a pale ale slightly darker than a bitter.  The same can be shown for bitterness and starting gravity.  Bitters have slightly less hop aroma than a pale ale, but again there is overlap in the acceptable ranges.  IPAs tend to have higher alcohol, but this comes from the evolution of the style.

Best bitters are the “brewer’s best” bitter made from the best ingredients.  Extra Strong Bitters are the higher gravity version of best bitters (not necessarily made with the “best” ingredients, but could be).  A best bitter usually has an alcohol content of 3.8 – 4.6% ABV, while the extra special bitter usually varies between 4.5-6.2% ABV.

In England, an ESB is brand unique to Fuller’s ESB.  This makes it very easy to determine which beer the barmaid served me.  Fuller’s was founded in 1845 on the historic Griffin Brewery which was built in 1654.

ESB Recipe

The basic recipe is very simple; use English pale ale malt as your base and crystal/caramel malt as the specialty grain.  The English pale malt is important and gives the beer the biscuit flavors typically found in bitters.

Since the ESB is stronger than the normal bitters, some recipes use sugar as an adjunct.  Sugar will thin the beer, so do not use more than 10% of the fermentables as sugar.

For hops, use Goldings, Challenger, or Fuggles.  Other hops can be used, but these are the most commonly used hops in ESB.  While the beer should have a solid bitter hop flavor, the bitterness should be slightly outpaced by the malt.  Many recipes add too much hops, which pushes the beer closer to an American Pale Ale or and IPA style beer.  If you like more hoppiness, make an APA or IPA.  The ESB hop aroma can be anywhere in the middle from moderately-low hop aroma to moderately-high hop aroma.

Here’s the recipe I use for ESBs:

11.0 pounds of Pale Ale malt
0.50 pounds 20 Crystal malt
0.50 pounds 40 Crystal malt
2 oz Fuggles (5.0% AA – 60 minutes)
1 oz Fuggles (5.0% AA – 0 minutes)
White Labs WLP002 English Ale or Wyeast 1968 London ESB
SG 1.068
IBU 41
5 gallon recipe

Mash the grain at 152 F.  Collect 7 gallons or wort and boil for 60 minutes to 5 gallons.  2 ounces of Fuggles will go into the wort at the start of your boil, and 1 ounce will be used for aroma.  Ferment the beer at 65 F.  Carbonate the beer to 1.5 to 2.0 volumes.

Burton-on-Trent Water

Many homebrewers believe to Butonize your water; you just buy the pack of salts and toss it into your water.  It works for many, but this most likely is a bad plan.  The reason is water in one local might be completely different from another local.  Your water might come from a reservoir, while water down the road may come from a well.  Each will have a completely different mineral content.

If you’re not convinced consider this.  Sulfates can increase the bitterness of your beer at 150 ppm – 350 ppm and get nasty at 400 ppm, but concentrations over 750 ppm can cause diarrhea.  Your best bet is to get the water mineral content analysis for your local area, and then calculate the correct amounts of salt to add.

The water in Burton-on-Trent, UK is very hard.  To match Burton-on-Trent, UK water exactly, your water should have the following profile.

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

Most water in the United States is very soft by comparison.  Other places in the world vary to some degree between very soft (low minerals) to moderate hardness (medium minerals).  Once you have your local water report, your best bet is to find a chart online or use software like BeerSmith to calculate the correct additions to Burtonize your water.  Another option is to use purified water, and then add the correct minerals.

If you are making an extract brew, don’t worry about the water profile.  The reason is the water profile can affect the starch conversion in your mash.  With extract brews, the sugars are already converted.  Burtonizing your water for an extract brew will have little effect, and if you add the wrong amounts it might actually taste bad.

Water profiles can be a whole article in itself.  For more info on how to calculate your water mineral additions, check out How To Brew by John Palmer.  The book and website will give you everything you want to know (and some) about modifying your water profile.

Finishing touches

If you’re looking for some beers to compare your ESB, try Fullers ESB or Redhook ESB.  There are many more available, but these examples are the easiest to find.  Keep in mind, the commercial versions of ESBs will have a slightly higher carbonation than the style suggests.  Another discrepancy is most ESB beers will tend to be fruitier and hoppier.  Fullers is different because it is maltier.

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DJ Spiess

DJ Spiess

Beer buddy

I live in Denver, Colorado. This blog is everything about beer, wine, cider, mead and other spirits.
I am a avid homebrewer and winemaker. I’ve been making my own beer and wine for many years. I started making beer when I was in college (mostly because the drinking age in the United States is 21). My first few beers were horrible. The beers are much better now, and I often supply my neighborhood with free beer! It is a great hobby!