Fuller's ESB at The Star Tavern

Pete Brown

Extra Special Bitter
5.9% bottled / 5.3% draft
First Brewed
1969 as a seasonal, became a year-round beer in 1971
Malt Varieties
Pale and Crystal malt
Hop Varieties
Challenger, Goldings, Northdown, and Target
Steak and chips: This full-bodied ale has the depth to stand up to the big flavour of a steak and the beers intense, rich fruit and marmalade notes complement and lift the dense flavour of the steak.
The Star Tavern
Pete Brown

Eventually, everything remembered becomes legend.

This may be difficult for some to accept, but sometimes, in beer, if there is a divergence between the two, the story matters more than the truth. Especially if the truth is a matter of hearsay, one person’s hazy, slightly slurred memory against another’s, spoken by people who may or may not have been there, or maybe that was a different night in a different pub… if the story is clear and strong, the story has a greater impact, and is more profound, and therefore has a greater meaning than whatever the truth might be. People go to war, fall in love and get tattoos for legends. They don’t get a bump in their blood pressure from emotionless, procedural accounts.

The truth is, I don’t really know how many of the first wave of American craft brewers were inspired to change their lives and make something happen as a result of drinking Fuller’s beers in pubs like the Star Tavern. But the legend is that beers such as London Pride and ESB are the inspiration for what became the global craft beer movement.

I do know for sure that John Hall would deliberately detour via London when his job took him to Frankfurt, because he told me in person. He would make his way into town from Heathrow with the specific intention of drinking Fuller’s beers in the Star. When he finally hung up his business suit and started Goose Island in 1988, the first beers he brewed were imitations of what he drank here.

The Star sits in a quiet cobbled mews in the heart of London’s exclusive Knightsbridge district. This is the kind of neighbourhood where multi-millionaires and members of the British aristocracy are being priced out by oligarchs and fossil fuel billionaires. Most of the shops have security guards to open the door for you, or slam it in your face if that face doesn’t fit.

So the Star shouldn’t still be here, but somehow, it is, and I doubt it’s changed since Hall snuck here on his layovers. It’s like a college refectory, a timeless space that could be a Hogwarts set location with minimal dressing. The atmosphere is quiet, the drinking business-like. This may be a strange thing to say about a pub, but in comparison to other watering holes around London, it feels very grown up.

Fullers ESB is a beer steeped in legend. I hear some of the most iconic craft beers in the world began life as attempts to imitate it. I know that what was once the name of a beer became a global beer style in its own right.

I know it was used as the basis of the style description for ESB in the Beer World Cup, and I hear that two years later, it was rejected in the same competition for not being to style.

I’m slightly nervous as I take my pint of ESB to a small table in the corner. Nervous because I haven’t drunk beer for a month, and nervous because it’s been a year since the Fuller’s brewing operation was bought by Asahi, and I’m hoping they haven’t screwed it up.

My period of abstinence has sharpened my appreciation, and my worries are unfounded.

We often describe beers as malty or hoppy. We don’t talk enough about the interplay between the two, the totality of the ingredients in perfect balance. To talk about this beer in terms of malt or hops would be to miss the point of it. I could say it has hints of caramel, or it echoes red wine, or that it has a grassy note. But what, actually, is the point of that? To reduce a beer like this to its component parts right now would feel like the behaviour of a psychopathic child who performs a live dissection on his pet rabbit to see how it works, and gets upset when it doesn’t want to play with him anymore.

Author Pete Brown working on his pint of ESB at The Star.

It’s more useful, and more honest, to say that this beer, in this pub, on a cold, damp February night, is comforting, inspiring, distracting. There’s a roundness to it, a wholeness that creates an emotional response which is so much more than the reductivism of tasting notes.

It doesn’t matter whether this is really the beer that all those early craft brewers supposedly copied. And if it is, it doesn’t matter that their copies ended up being so different: the beers that resulted still make me feel the same way Fuller’s ESB does, even if they don’t taste like it. Beers like these invite contemplation rather than hype. They endure because they always offer something new to the attentive, thoughtful drinker, inspiring thoughts and ideas, some of which end up evolving into fantastic stories.

When the legend becomes fact, drink the legend.

Pete Brown is a British author, journalist, broadcaster and consultant specialising in food and drink. He is the author of nine books and writes for newspapers and magazines around the world, as well as being a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme. He was named British Beer Writer of the Year in 2009, 2012 and 2016 and has been shortlisted twice for the Andre Simon Awards.

Flagship beers were chosen by the individual writers with no input from the #FlagshipFebruary partners or sponsor breweries.

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