I can remember where and when I first had pretty much all of my favorite beers, but when it comes to one of my very earliest favorites, Fuller’s ESB, I always draw a blank. I can’t remember where, or when, or even whether I had it from a bottle or keg or cask, but what I do remember is that I loved it immediately. And unlike many of my early favorites, I never had to wait for it to come back around to seasonal availability. It was always there, in bottles at Prairie Moon in college, on tap at the Crown & Anchor in law school, and on the shelves of every liquor store and supermarket making even the barest feint at stocking British beer. From all this, I can only conclude that I don’t remember my first Fuller’s ESB because Fuller’s ESB is a sort of universal constant, because it has always been there and will always be there and will always be utterly delicious.
Fuller’s ESB is one of a very few beers that are literally synonymous with their style. Fuller’s actually owns the trademark on the initialism “ESB” in Britain, so other extra special bitters or extra strong bitters go by different descriptions there. Obviously that protection doesn’t extend to the land of the free, where brewers can slap the ESB label on anything they damn well please, sometimes without much regard for whether what they’re actually bottling is a real ESB or just a slightly darker IPA. But both in England and abroad, Fuller’s ESB has had such an outsize influence on its style that the comments to the Beer Judge Certification Guidelines caution that judges “should not judge all beers in this style as if they were Fuller’s ESB clones.” Easy said, but when you’ve got an example this good right in front of you, it can almost seem like a waste not to emulate it.
Now, I have a predilection for fancy-ass glassware. My fancy-ass Teku glasses, which are just awesome for drinking strong, flavorful beers, have featured in quite a few Beer Barrel illustrations. But it seems to me that the only truly appropriate glass for this beer is the most British of glasses, the nonic pint. (It’s ribbed, for her pleasure!—specifically, the pleasure of not stepping on broken glass in the kitchen when a regular-ass pint glass slips out of my hand.) And it makes a terrific showcase for Fuller’s ESB, which pours red-gold, bright and clear, with a light, fine head and maybe a bit of lacing as it recedes in the glass. The taste is a bold, almost overwhelming delight, full of caramel, marmalade, and graham cracker. And despite the “bitter” moniker, there’s no actual significant bitterness to this beer; just enough hoppiness to keep the sweeter flavors in check. If you’re the type to let the seasons dictate your drinking, this is both a fall beer and a spring beer, perfectly suited to drinking outdoors in mild weather. But the magic of Fullers ESB is: You can drink it anytime. You can get it anywhere. And it’s probably one of the hundred or so best beers in the entire goddamn world.
lady snow says: Is it weird that it reminds me of a summer beer?
make it snow says: That’s not where I had it, but now I’m intrigued.
lady snow says: Maybe not even necessarily summer, but a beach beer or a poolside beer. It kind of smells like the ocean to me. In a good way, not like a fishy way. It’s got that kind of fresh salt air quality to it.
make it snow says: Really? I’m out of beer now, can I see if I get that? [sniff] Oh, holy shit, yeah, you’re right. I wonder what that is, because it’s definitely not a salted beer. I know exactly what you’re talking about, but I can’t work out what part of the beer it comes from.
lady snow says: It’s really nice, though. Very pleasant. And it tastes to me like it’d be a good beer to pair with oysters, or some kind of shellfish. What I like about shellfish is that you can taste the ocean in them, you know?
make it snow says: Yeah, and I think the caramel and fruity flavors in the beer would make a really nice contrast for the more briny sorts of oysters.
lady snow says: I taste the caramel, too. I really like that. I think my favorite thing about this beer though is still that salt air aroma. It’s a very relaxing experience to drink this. We should start a brewery that specializes in aromatherapy beers.
make it snow says: Ooh, like what’s that Dogfish Head one with the salt and black limes… SeaQuench!
lady snow says: Yeah, or Indra Kunindra!
tl;dr: This is one of the best beers and you can drink it whenever you want. Do it!
Grade: Extra extra extra special.
make it snow is an alot of beer and recent Denver vacationer. While writing this review, he drank two full bottles of Fullers ESB and whatever was left of a third after lady snow drank a half-pint. He’s got some hard-hitting Oscar analysis and original art coming later today or maybe tomorrow.