Nick Carr on August 24, 2020 0 Comments Strong Bitter, also called English Pale Ale, and maybe most popularly Extra Special Bitter (ESB), is the English bitter style Americans are probably the most familiar with. It’s the one most often bottled, and most often imported into the U.S. Strong Bitter, as the name suggests, is the strongest of the three English Bitter siblings. It has a heftier malt profile, bringing a sweet caramel, bready, biscuity complexity, which is then balanced with some extra IBUs. Add just a touch of fruity esters from English yeast and you have a subtly complex, immensely enjoyable brew that will fit perfectly into just about every occasion. Here are some tips on brewing one at home. Grain Bill Base Malts: As with the other two bitter styles, the main key to an ESB grain bill is English pale malt. The main reason to use this type of malt over American pale malt is its kilning. English pale malt tends to be a little darker (2.5 to 3.5oL) than its American counterpart, and if you go with floor malted grain it can even be 4.0oL. These darker colors tend to lend a more biscuit-like, dark bread character. We likely all know about the classic English malt Maris Otter by now, but there are other English malts out there that, though able to bring uniqueness to a beer, just don’t get the fan fair of Maris Otter. Malts like Golden Promise, Chevallier, Halcyon, and Optic are just a few other possible choices for your ESB. Specialty Malts: The English pale malt can make up as much as 100% of your recipe, but really an ESB isn’t quite an ESB without some gentle caramel sweetness, which provides a richness to the biscuity/bready flavors. So, to get our richness we need caramel malt. Again, go with British caramel/crystal to keep things authentic. Also remember that the color of the crystal imparts different amounts of color and different flavors to the beer. Lighter color crystal will give sweeter honey-like notes, while darker crystal provides light toastiness, roasted flavors, dark caramel notes, and even dark, dried fruit character. All told you should keep your caramel malt additions between 8 and 10 percent of your grain bill. The darker the malt the less you should use. Many recipes split the caramel malt, using half light caramel and half medium caramel, or opting for a slightly higher percentage of medium or light caramel and just a bit of dark caramel. Adjunct Sugars Though adjunct sugars are popular in much of English brewing and they are used in bitters sometimes, it’s recommended to avoid them. In most cases adjuncts will only serve to reduce the malt flavors and thin the beer. Neither of which play into the Extra Special Bitter style. The only place you might use adjuncts is if you’re brewing a very strong example, which already means you are playing outside the guidelines. If you do use an adjunct try to use something that will add at least slight flavor; an extra dark honey perhaps, or molasses maybe. Extract Brewing If you’re an extract brewer, you’ll be a bit more limited in your choices when it comes to base malt. Look for a high quality extract made with English pale malt. There’s extract available made with 100% Maris Otter malt. This may be your best and only option. Then steep your chosen crystal malts and add directly to the boil. Alternatively, if you’d like to try your hand at a mini-mash, you could take your crystal and mash it with a pound of Maris Otter or one of the other base malts listed above. Hops You won’t have a true English bitter of any style if you don’t use English hops. COMMON ENGLISH VARIETIES TO CONSIDER East Kent Goldings Target Challenger UK Fuggles Northdown Brambling Cross Willamette Beyond these common varieties, you could also look at some lesser-known and/or newer English cultivars such as Phoenix, Jester, Flyer, and Boadicea. There are a few American hops that could work in a pinch; Willamette comes to mind. But, if at all possible, supplement any non-English varieties used, with a good dose of an English variety. Extra Special Bitter packs a noticeable, yet understated bittering punch at 30 to 50 IBUs. However, it shouldn’t completely overwhelm the malt profile. To this end, a bitterness-to-starting gravity ration of between 0.6 and 0.9 works well. The bulk of your hops should go in as a bittering addition at 60 minutes. You can add small flavor/aroma additions throughout the boil, but don’t go overboard. A little aroma and a noticeable bitterness are all that’s called for by the style. One addition at flameout, plus one other addition at 20 to 15 minutes is all you need. Water Purists will say you need to get as close to the Burton-upon-Trent water profile as possible. The Breakdown of Burton-upon-Trent Water: Calcium — 295.0 ppm Chlorine — 25.0 ppm Sodium — 55.0 ppm Sulfate — 725.0 ppm Magnesium — 45.0 ppm Bicarbonate — 300.0 ppm But, this isn’t really necessary. Unless you know for a fact that your water is soft, try brewing an Extra Special Bitter without changing anything, before you decide to make adjustments. This, at the very least, will give you a baseline to work from. Water chemistry can enhance perceived bitterness. Instead of trying to adjust purified water to an exact replica of Burton-upon-Trent, you might find comparable results by simply adding some sulfites in the form of gypsum. Start small, adding 2 to 3 grams per gallon of brewing water. The Mash The mash, like everything else about the bitter styles, is straightforward. British pale malt is well modified so there is no need for any kind of step mash. A single-step infusion will get the job done just fine. Hold your mash at a saccharification temperature of 152oF for an hour; or until conversion is complete. Sparge and Boil Once complete, sparge with 170oF water to your boil volume. The boil is a standard 60 minutes. Add your bittering addition as your wort begins to boil. Remember, to allow a rolling boil (no simmering here) and don’t put a lid on it (you really can’t anyway without creating a mess). Add any flavor/aroma additions as per your schedule. Cool your wort to yeast pitching temperature as quickly as possible. Yeast As with all the other ingredients, it’s best to go with an English yeast strain. English strains are known for the fruity esters they impart and it’s these fruity esters’ work paired with the higher sweetness and complexity that really makes an English bitter worth appreciating. You also want a strain that attenuates to no more than around 70 percent. WHITE LABS WYEAST DRY ORGANIC English Ale Yeast (WLP002) West Yorkshire Ale (1469) Safale (S-04) Imperial Yeast- Pub (A09) British Ale Yeast (WLP005) London ESB Ale (1968) Danstar (Windsor) Fermentation and Bottling When you’re ready to pitch the yeast be sure to aerate/oxygenate the wort well. You can do this by agitation (shaking, stirring, splashing) or use a wort aeration system. Of course, fermentation temperature is going to depend somewhat on the yeast you are using, but a good average pitching temp is the mid to high 60s. Maintain this warm temperature for a few days, so that you get some good ester formation. At the end let the temperature rise to about 70oF, just to clean up a bit of the diacetyl. Some of that buttery slickness can work with the mouthfeel and caramel elements in an ESB, but you don’t want them too over the top either. When it’s time to package your newly finished ESB, shoot for about 2 volumes of carbonation if bottling and 1.5 if kegging. If you happen to be a true traditionalist and decide to cask condition, the carbonation will be even lower, only about 1 volume. Bitter of any stripe should be enjoyed at a balmy 55oF. This may fly in the face of personal preference, especially here in the U.S., but trust me, you lose all of the nuance and subtle complexity if it’s too cold.