Friday Froth: An ESB Or Three?

James Gribbon

The problem with taste sensations is their inevitable ubiquity. Like a new song quickly overplayed into agonizing repetition, the new hotness becomes common as mud or lobster mac and cheese. Bloody Mary gimmicks are an excellent example. Five years ago, someone put a stick of candied bacon in there, then someone else stuck a tiny grilled cheese on the olive skewer because who doesn't like that with tomato soup, and a bloody is basically a tomato soup moat against delirium tremens. So by now the trend has spawned radioactive, $40 mutants topped with a shrimp cocktail, a fried drumstick, three sliders, and a whole, crappy, pizza, with maybe a glass half full of plastic jug vodka and some mix from the Sysco truck balancing on tip toes for its life underneath this coral reef of shotgun kitchen scraps. This is not progress. You know what was good? The thing that's now the afterthought: an icy, spicy, vitamin-enriched glass of excuses for drinking to make your hands stop trembling on a Sunday morning. The  Bloody Mary. It's almost underground counter culture at this point to find one made with standard, quality ingredients. Which brings us to beer. 

Beer trends take over, too. Europe had a deep, ancient portfolio of beer styles people drank locally before modern brewing meant everything didn't need to taste like smoke, trains and better roads made foreign styles available, and Czech pilsner became all anyone wanted to drink outside of England. German brewers followed the market and created helles (light) beer and kolsch, Augustus Busch brought a purloined Czechvar recipe to America, and everything we drank in America became yellow and mild. Gose, grisette, rauchbier, all these currently trendy styles, ceased to exist in their own places of birth. They'd been pushed out by what had once been a popular new style, and also by poor leadership choices which caused explodey things to fall from the sky for several years and take out the old breweries. 

Quadrillions of gallons of yellow lager and mild ales were produced in Europe and the U.S. before American home brewing was re-legalized and we invented the modern brewing Renaissance. Skip ahead to today, and we have people throwing pastry and glitter into beer, along with every fruit that can be dumped onto the docks, and you know what? A lot of it is truly, achingly good. It's also wildly decadent, and people are forgetting how good traditional beers can be. So, this week, let's be unfashionable. 

This week we're going to look at some beers which could be confused for the country's least glitzy style, the Extra Special Bitter, or ESB. Most people who had access to beer, legally or not, in the Cro-Magnon craft beer era of the 1990s will remember Red Hook ESB. It was a good touch bitter, with a sharp roast and a twinge of sweetness to its malt-forward profile. English inspired bones fleshed out by a toddling American craft beer industry, it sold a ton as a delicious change of pace from Bud/Miller/Coors/Molson/Corona, and was to be one of the first brands bought and ruined by "Big Beer," in this case Anheuser-Busch.

The opposite end of the spectrum is the modern nano-brewery and, individually, Aspetuck Brew Lab of Black Rock. For a while there American craft brewers were sort of caught up between what for many was their roots homebrewing English style ales, and the wildfire spread of ultra-hopped American west coast IPAs. In a lot of cases what popped out was English malts topped with American hops in a style called the red IPA. Aspetuck's Audacious Mongrel is just such a beer. A reasonable 6.4% alcohol and 55 IBUs, Mongrel pours a reddish brown under a head which melts into a classic, thick ring. There is a big grain aroma, and you can still smell a bit of sweet wort. The deep roast comes out in flavors of biscuit, coffee, and a whiff of cocoa. It is outstanding in the style, and just barely hopped up enough to come across as American, but the overall gestalt is a superb ESB made on our side of the Atlantic. Production at Aspetuck is varied enough to make this hard to find, which adds to how special it is.

Amber ales have likewise had their fermenter space usurped by every IPA and pumpkin spice beer capable of production in the 21st C., but thankfully Firefly Hollow makes room at their brewery in Bristol to create Moonrise. The coppery body swells under a dense head of tiny bubbles from which escapes a toasty aroma with a little grapefruit alluding to the use of modern hops like Citra and Galaxy. The middling 6ish% ABV is carefully hidden inside a smooth, smooth caramel malt. The citrusy hops mostly only live in the nose, but there's a good bitterness, swole and American, to what I'd otherwise typify as that English style ESB. It's a truly enjoyable beer, especially in the fall, and it's worth a trip to the brewery, or a careful eye on the tap list.

Is there anything more generic sounding than "pub ale"? Tallgrass out in Kansas makes a beer called just that, and 10 Barrel makes a pseudo ironic, forgettable "Pub Beer," but I think the one we're most familiar with comes in tall yellow cans from England with the name "Boddington's" on them. Notably, Boddy is a nitrogenated ale, like a Guinness, and pouring one is a snap of cracking the top, shoving the whole can into a pint glass until it stops, then pulling it slowly out as the beer chugs out and settles in an oddly pleasing cascade.

Brassy and perfectly clean and clear in a glass, with that dense, cold boil waterfall effect you get in nitrogen beers, Two Roads Little Timmy kicks Boddington's to the curb at first sip. Tim' is smooth, biscuity with Maillard reaction, and so, so easy to drink. Malts are gentle and highly susceptible to maltreatment in heat or timing, and this pub ale is indicative of a brewer who knows how to guide them with a gentle hand. This is a beer which manages to look at old school, cask drawn ales, and recreate the experience with modern tech. It's like drinking a Singer Porsche. Lil Timmy is subtle, brilliant, and I'd call it the result of hundreds of years of old world refinement (like its namesake, perennial media winner Timmy Taylor's Landlord Yorkshire Pale Ale), were it not a nitro pub ale which first escaped the fermenter for the first time like eight months ago. Two Roads, I'm begging you: make more of this.

Throw a tenner down anywhere and you can sweep up a sour gose or a yeast cloud juice bomb DIPA, and if Treehouse and you both agree it's OK to get sunstroke waiting in line, you can buy their beers by the case, yet those are called special.

Out of the three beers in this review, Moonrise may be the easiest to find, and it's not that easy. Aspetuck makes small batches - mostly IPAs and creative special brews now, and I've only seen Lil Timmy in a single pilot batch release. These beers are not fancy, far from fashionable, and decidedly un-trendy, but most of all, they are uncommon. Sands have piled over these old styles, and there they remain, waiting rediscovery.

See you out there.