While there are varied opinions on what exactly constitutes an ESB (extra special bitter), most brewers agree that the style refers to a simple English-style pale ale, especially one with a single type of malt and a single (usually English) variety of hops. Usually easy-drinking and well-balanced (if a bit on the bitter side), ESBs pair well with strong-flavored foods such as pizza, bratwurst, or buffalo wings.
Ska Brewing Company brews up several tasty kinds of beer at its headquarters in Durango, but the real stand-outs in my mind are the ESB and its Modus Hoperandi India Pale Ale. Both are wonderfully bitter, and Modus especially will satisfy all but the most jaded hop-heads with 65 IBUs (international bitterness units). The ESB is my favorite of the bunch because of its more balanced application of bitterness, with 58 IBUs. Most Ska brews can also be found packaged in colorful aluminum cans, a definite plus when weight or broken glass are concerns.
At first glance, Ska ESB looks like any other amber-colored ale with an average amount of foam. Sniff the glass and you are immediately hit with a strong bitter scent of Galena hops, with a slight secondary whiff of caramel and malt sugar. The first sip is also dominated by bitterness without much nuance. A pleasantly sweet caramel aftertaste follows up, with just a hint of alcohol and English ale yeast. After taking a few more sips, your taste buds will become accustomed to the bitterness and more complex flavors come through. Subtle fruity notes from the hops shine out here, as does a nutty caramel profile from the malt.
With an enough-but-not-too-much alcohol content of 5.7% and the aforementioned balanced-but-bitter profile, Ska ESB makes a wonderful session beer for those of us who enjoy a bit more hops. It may not be my favorite ESB – that honor belongs to Grand Teton’s Bitch Creek, with Lefthand’s Sawtooth running a close second – but Ska’s contribution to the bitter party deserves mention for its simple and no-nonsense style. It’s easy to enjoy a glass over a plate of barbecue without the beer stealing the show. I give Ska’s ESB a B+ for being above average without showing off.