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Beer Review: Ska Brewing’s Special ESB Ale

This brew is a little bit of everything, all rolled into one.

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Special ESB Ale, Ska Brewing, Durango

Style: Extra Special / Strong Bitter Ale

Serving Type: 12-ounce cans (6 packs)

ABV: 5.8 percent

Hop Meter (1–10): 6

Malt Meter (1–10): 5

Reviewed: August 2015


When it comes to beer, I’m very much a quality-over-quantity consumer. I haven’t tried many of Durango-based Ska Brewing’s products, but one of their brews, Modus Hoperandi, is among my favorites. So I was excited to take in another Ska offering, especially because their ESB has a pretty storied history. According to the brewhouse, it was the second U.S. microbrew to be canned, after Oskar Blue’s Dale’s Pale Ale—a fact for which it (like Buzz Aldrin following in Neil Armstrong’s footprints) suffers a lack of deserving publicity.

Considering my experience with Modus, I wasn’t shocked that ESB is a brash brew. The first sip is sharp and cheek-smacking, and there’s a metamorphosis as it rolls across your tongue—turning hoppy then malty before vanishing altogether. The brewer boasts that a “caramel overtone prevails with some tart fruit notes.” My pallet isn’t that sleuthy, but I did feel like I was partaking of three beers in one: the sharp sting of an IPA, the sugar melt of a malt-heavy brew, and then (this is weird) an almost PBR-like finish. There’s a lot going on here.

Maybe too much, at least for frequent consumption. Immediately after taking her first gulp of ESB, my drinking buddy’s eyes popped open and she let out an “hmmmm,” followed by an “ohhhhh.” “That’s great,” she said, but after further consideration added: “I don’t know if I could have more than one.” I understand her point. ESB is such a complicated brew, you have to focus to make sure you appreciate its three dimensions. Suck one down while, say, playing volleyball in Wash Park and you’ve probably missed its point.

The Ideal Drinker: The beer aficionado—or someone looking to play the part.

(Check out 5280‘s guide to the Colorado craft beer scene)

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