Monday, June 09, 2008

Fuller's ESB, with a short discourse on the history of malt liquor.

This is yet another post inspired by Twiffer, who, in commenting on my post about Alice Feiring and anti-Parkerism, bemoaned the unavailability of his favorite brew, Fuller's ESB (more about what those initials stand for below) in stores in the Washington, D.C. area. My suggestion to Twiff is that he direct his complaint to the British Embassy, who will no doubt see fit to lodge a protest, and may even be willing to share with him some of the case or two a month I'm sure they get by diplomatic pouch.

Anyway, Twiff's paean to this ale led me to want to give it a try--oddly, I'd never had it. Luck was with me yesterday as my wife, my daughter and Kei Andersen accompanied me to the Atlantic Chip Shop for dinner, and ESB was on tap there. I did not suffer buyer's regret. Lately, my taste has run to assertively hoppy IPAs like Dogfish Head. With ESB, by contrast, it's the malt that announces itself first, a caramel-y caress to the middle of the tongue, like a flourish of woodwinds, before the hops hit the back, a soft swell of strings in a minor key. It was a balance that worked nicely with the Granny Smith, walnut and Stilton salad we shared as a starter, and the bangers and mash I had for my entrée.

On this side, you'll sometimes see ESB called "Extra Special Bitter", but if you're in Britain and ask for that, the person tending bar is likely to give you a quizzical look. Over there it's usually just "ESB", but if you ask anyone what that stands for, you'll be told, "Extra Strong Bitter". (Update: Judging by the number of hits on this post from England off web searches for "ESB stands for what?" or similar, I'm convinced "anyone" is far from a safe bet.) Using "strong" as an adjective in a trade name or advertising for any alcoholic beverage in the U.S. would be a major no-no. Laws and regulations here provide that alcoholic content, as a percentage or "proof", must be printed on every label, but nothing else may be said by way of puffery, e.g. "kicks like a mule" or "two shots of this and your troubles are over".

This brings back a memory from my early 1960s high school days. A TV commercial: camera shot of the middle of a table, wrought iron painted white with a glass top, on a patio with golf links in the background. On the left, a man's hands; in front of the hands, a Pilsner glass and a twelve ounce beer can, with no readable brand name. on the right, another man's hands; in front of them a Pilsner glass, but next to it a stubby eight ounce can with the label "Country Club". Need I say (given the decade and the setting) that both men are white, and have the sort of accents one would find in the spiffier suburbs of Northern New Jersey, Westchester or Southern Connecticut? The dialogue is something like this:

MAN ON LEFT: Nice round of golf.

MAN ON RIGHT: Thanks.

LEFT: What's that you're drinking?

RIGHT: It's Country Club malt liquor.

LEFT: Malt liquor?

RIGHT: Yes. It's less bitter, with less filling carbonation, and it has more [here the man on the right picks up the stubby can and slams it down on the glass for emphasis] AUTHORITY [translation: it has more ALCOHOL] than beer.

LEFT: Hmmm, I'll have to give that a try.
So it was that malt liquor (by law, any fermented malt beverage above a certain percentage of alcohol by volume--the threshold varies from state to state--may not be called "beer" or "ale", but must be called "malt liquor") was first marketed as a beverage of choice for white, upper middle class men. Then some genius did some market research and found out who was really buying the stuff; as the saying goes, the rest is history (and bye-bye eight ounce cans).

Addendum: There's a good piece on the history of malt liquor here. Joe Martini has inspired me to search YouTube for classic Colt 45 TV commercials from the 1960s featuring an impassive "spokesman" and "Ernie Kovacs Nairobi Trio music." Here's the best example I could find:


Thanks to adclassix for the clip.