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Classic Beer of the Month May 2014: Fuller's ESB, 5.5%

It's hard to believe that Fuller's ESB has only been with us for just over forty years.

Fuller's ESBThis world-renowned ale was introduced in 1971, a replacement for a winter ale known as Old Burton Extra.

Its initials stood simply for Extra Special Bitter, and the beer – soon a year-round offering – quickly gained a cult following during the early days of the Campaign for Real Ale, winning CAMRA's Champion Beer of Britain crown on three occasions.

Drinkers admired its full body, complex bittersweet flavours and, rather daring at the time, high strength. At around 5.5% ABV, the 1976 Good Beer Guide called it 'the strongest bitter in Britain'.

That sort of strength doesn't imply anything out of the ordinary today and, even at that time, it probably didn't mean much to the young brewers in the USA who took a shine to the beer. In their country, mere session beers came in at around the same mark.

No, what American brewers and drinkers appreciated was the mellow English hop character, something that gave the beer rounded, rather than aggressive, fruit notes – a touch of peppery orange and tangy, leafy bitterness to offset the intrinsic sweetness and the faintly caramel-like notes of the rich malt.

It's all down to the clever mix of Golding, Challenger, Target and Northdown hops, in combination with the fruity Fuller's yeast.

An International Style

Such pioneering American breweries as Redhook and Wynkoop set out to create their own versions of this sought-after beer – their own ESBs, as they labelled them – and scores of other breweries have now followed suit, meaning that what was once just a London brand name has become an international style.

On draught or in the bottle (slightly stronger, at 5.9%), the Fuller's original remains a top beer, perhaps even improved by a tweaking of the recipe in 2004.

The act of serving it in Fuller's pubs in an attractive, chalice-style glass certainly helps maintain a distinguished profile but it's really the contents that keep the name revered.

If you like a beer with both class and clout, treat yourself to a pint of something Extra Special.

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