For more than 25 years now, I have been convinced that the second best beer in the world is Fuller’s Extra Special Bitter despite all evidence to the contrary.
ESB took the title from its little brother – London Pride – when I ordered it by mistake. At that time, Pride was hard to find even in London and, recognising the pump handle from the doorway, I ordered a pint without reading the small print. The deliciously rich rounded taste that I loved so well was strangely more complete and more intense than I remembered and my love for ESB was born.
When I moved to New York in ’94, the state of the beer market was pretty dismal and I had my only sustained period of drinking crap beer since my career began in 1978 (I drank only wine and milk for two months in Australia in ’89 for fear of permanently damaging my taste buds with their insipid swill). I shudder at some of the piss that passed my lips in those dark days.
After the cold winter of New York, California’s microbrews were a soul-warming blast of sunshine and they renewed my respect for the progeny of John Barleycorn.
In my home country, American beer was always thought of as something of a joke – an oxymoron almost. But the incredible array of tasty beverages in every bar buried that long-standing truth deep underground. Even the now-mass-produced Sierra Nevada is worth returning to. Anchor Steam – which, with Sierra, helped rescued American Beer from the Laughing Stocks – deserves a special shout-out. I especially recommend it with mushroom, jalapeño, kalamata olive, anchovy and extra cheese pizza.
The Bay Area even had Fuller’s ESB which I ordered out of nostalgia. I still called it The Second Best Beer in the World even though I was disappointed every time I tried it and I tried it many times. The pubs just seemed to not give it the care it required and from a bottle it just tasted… well… wrong. ESB was like a childhood friend who had grown up to be a dick. I wanted to keep in touch to rekindle the flame of my memories but I had no desire to spend a lot of time with it. I stuck with the California microbrews.
But the best California microbrew was actually from Oregon and an almost-emigration to the Land of the Hop Monster changed my beer drinking habits for ever. Portlanders don’t like too much beer diluting the taste of their hops and when you first arrive, you wonder how anyone can even drink the stuff. As my friend says, it’ll shrivel your labia if you are not man enough. After a while though, you wonder how anyone can ever drink anything else.
I have tried drinking Portland-style beers in California but they just don’t work. The first time, I thought it was the weather – I accidentally drank an IPA once after a couple of hours of football in the hot sun and almost had to call an ambulance – but no, controlled experiments have shown me that it is not possible to enjoy strongly-hopped beers in the Golden State.
I still look forward to my visits to the rainy north for the welcome assault on my gustatory system (and the pleasant company!) but when I come back south the beer tastes as dreary as the Portland weather. We have already established that I can’t drink Portland beer down here, so what is a fellow to do? Go back to wine and milk?
I discovered the answer a couple of weeks ago.
We had a family crisis and, as with most crises, we decided that it was best resolved by going to the Britannia Arms. Well, the pint of Fuller’s Extra Strong Bitter that they served me that day transported me instantly to my misspent post-adolescence and to the banks of the River Thames at Chiswick. As if the surprisingly hot wood-nymph from Disney’s version of The Firebird were lovingly caressing my taste buds back from the ravages of devastation, I wanted to soar on wings of delight.
Welcome home, my long lost friend.
I have done several controlled tests since that glorious day. I have had ESB several times and it has been marvellous each time. I have been careful not to overdo it – as with a promising relationship with a new girlfriend, you don’t want to spend too much time with her for fear of ruining something delicate – but our relationship is holding up rather well.
I even tried it at home. From the bottle, it’s awful but pour it into a proper pint glass and Fuller’s ESB reclaims its rightful place as the Second Best Beer in the World.
Hooray, beer! Hooray Fuller’s!