photo by Zijperspace of

Redhook ESB – 5.8% ABV – Redhook Brewing Co., Woodinville, WA

College – What an exciting period in one’s life. A chance to be on your own, without parental interference. A time to try new things, learn new things, gain knowledge and experience that will propel you through adulthood. My college days were full of all that, and more. Fraternity life introduced me to more beer than I thought possible. I had already accumulated plenty of knowledge drinking and trying out new flavors, but college really put me on a whole new level. One of my fraternity buddies, who hailed from the Boston area, introduced me to Redhook many years ago. It was definitely a different tasting brew than what I had been accustomed to.

So what is all this about? Let’s start with the name – Redhook ESB. First, there’s Redhook. They are a brewery based in Woodinville, WA that has been brewing this ESB, their flagship beer, since 1981. Even though the term didn’t exist at the time, Redhook became one of America’s first “craft” breweries. They made their humble start in an old transmission shop in the Seattle suburb of Ballard, growing into the current brewery in Woodinville and adding one on the east coast in Portsmouth, NH after they decided it was too lengthy and costly to ship their beer cross-country. Over the last 30 years, Redhook has become one of America’s most recognized craft breweries. So that answers part one of our question. Now, what is an ESB? That stands for Extra Special Bitter. I can already see you hop-averse folks starting to cringe with displeasure. It’s bitter yes, but not painfully so. It’s characterized after traditional British bitter ales. There is a good amount of malt sweetness, balanced by hoppy bitterness. Maybe it’s the name that scares people. Regardless, the beer is bitter, but it’s supposed to be.

The color is a clear amber/copper hue. So right off the bat I would come to expect some hearty malted goodness. Thankfully I’m not disappointed. There is a little bit of white head and the carbonation is quite light. Any lacing that is left in the glass clings to it pretty well. The taste is something altogether different, but we’ll get to that in a moment. The nose you get from this is slightly pungent – the caramel being driven by a floral hop character that reminds me of a pale ale or IPA. Now remember, I’ve noted before I’m not a huge fan of these types of beer, that many are an acquired taste in my mind. So how does this one fare?

Getting my first sip of this in almost 15 years really brought me back to the dorm room, watching SportsCenter, smoking a cigarette and deciding when to crawl out of bed to grab another beer. The flavor is something like I would associate with Sam Adams Boston Lager – good malty base followed by a strong, spicy hop bitterness in the end. It’s not exactly the same, not even really that close, but for informative purposes I decided to compare the two. I just wanted to paint a picture with broad brush strokes. Really, it’s a pretty solid beer, fairly thin-to-medium bodied. The caramel malt base that you get at the start really does its best to run a marathon, keeping a nice pace while the hop bitterness hides in waiting and then sprints toward the finish line to catch up to it. Who is the winner? It’s a photo finish, and the caramel sweetness won by a nose.

Many have abstained from trying this beer because of the ESB moniker, but to be honest with you, it’s not that bitter. Even some of my colleagues here at The Keg Tap are hesitant to sample it despite my insistence. I’ll win them over eventually. As far as you’re concerned, you should go out and try it. Maybe you’ll like it, maybe you won’t. I think it’s a pretty good beer all in all. Does it stand the test of time and have the same wow factor it had on me in college? No. I’ve outgrown much of that and my palate has since greatly matured. But it is still a respectable brew worthy of your taste buds. Give it a shot, you never know…


Redhook ESB