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1st October, 2020

Like LSD, its cousin in the world of so-called mind-expanding drugs, ESB’s three-letter acronym has attracted a measure of notoriety among beer drinkers. I use the word cousin advisedly: ESB, or Extra Special Bitter, to give it its full and never-used name, has psychedelic qualities, at least I think so. I’ll come back to that further on.

Here are the facts. Fuller’s ESB was first brewed in 1971 and has won several prestigious prizes since, including the world champion beer award. Its rather lovely blue label does not lie when it says champion ale. It is a malty, full-bodied, deep brown brew with notes of fruit cake and marmalade – the furthest thing from the regrettable craze for heavily hoppy ales which has gripped the nation’s youth and hipsters.

ESB’s reputation for strength is deserved but the strange thing is that on paper it is not that strong: 5.5 per cent ABV from the cask and a slightly more rocking 5.9 per cent in bottles. The fact that you can get seriously out of it on ESB – or Laudanum as I like to call it – is not really explained by its official strength.

Many seasoned drinkers are wary of it. I know one who would think nothing of polishing off half a bottle of single malt or Irish before venturing to the pub for an evening’s carousing, yet who is reluctant as a nun would be to join me in a pint of ESB. One evening some years ago he joined me at the pub; on this occasion he was sober on arrival. He went out to the beer garden to speak with some friends and ended up out there for some time. He had about five pints of ESB, which he had not drunk for years, ferried out to him. Eventually he came back in but was a changed man. It may seem a cliché to say that he had gone from Dr Jekyll to Mr Hyde but I assure you the change was just as radical. The upright, lucid, middle-aged and middle class man who had gone out of the door came back through it like some palsied wretch from a horror film. He no longer stood up straight and had lost the ability to walk forwards, instead essaying unsteady movements crabwise. Held up by his girlfriend, he tried to say something – ‘goodbye’ I suppose, or ‘help’ – but it was as if his tongue had swollen to many times its natural size. He twitched and grimaced as if suddenly afflicted by St Vitus Dance. His eyes! I’ll never forget them. What has happened to me, they seemed to implore. Before he was ignominiously helped away, he stared intently at the etched glass windows in the Siege of Corinth as if he had seen something move in their designs. This is where the psychedelia comes in. Says Keats in his Ode on a Grecian Urn:

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed

Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu

ESB would have got those leaves shedding, or twitching at least. And even if not, ESB-induced jollity would have you asking how much does a Grecian earn, and even laughing at that old chestnut, not to mention how you make a Venetian blind and a Maltese cross. I would even raise the question of what is the best way to make a Viennese whirl. Drink ESB I suppose, but I digress.

I always advise newbies interested in its mind-expanding properties to drink three or four pints at a decent pace and then stare intently at the pub carpet or anything with an interesting visual pattern. Should they be susceptible to the active element in ESB they will experience some heightening of their perception, not unlike the early stages of LSD intoxication: increased colour sensitivity, a greater perception of sound; unusual thought patterns and associations, even outbursts of hysterical laughter or weeping: in other words, a bit trippy. I have experienced the gamut. The only thing that comes close to it in alcoholic terms is proper absinthe. About 20 years ago a pal brought me a bottle of proper 70 per cent absinthe back from Eastern Europe. One early summer evening I started drinking it from a martini glass filled to the brim. I suppose I had four. Through a window I saw some distant trees gorgeously abstracting in a gentle breeze and a golden light. Warmth flowed through me and a feeling that I was subject to a divine beneficence. There and then I saw why Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec got strung out on it (Lautrec used to drink a cocktail of absinthe and brandy called an Earth Tremor. He was dead at 36 so don’t try that at home, kids). Add to the alteration of visual perception the bodily feeling that you are walking through mud or water and that gravity itself is working intermittently on you – now extra G-force, now less – and you get a picture of the ESB experience.

After asking around about ESB’s ‘X factor’ I discovered that more than one ale enthusiast has tried to get to the bottom of it. One acquaintance at the Siege of Corinth, a nice Victorian corner pub which does the best pint I’ve found of it in my part of southeast London, told me his brother traced the effect back to a certain grain or hop, but more than that he was unable to say. I suppose one day science will explain all.

As you may imagine I don’t drink ESB that often. I reserve it for reckless moods, stressful evenings – when it comprehensively outdoes any benzodiazepine I have ever taken in the job of switching off a raging amygdala. It is also good for intensely cold evenings and, perhaps when it is most efficacious, for minor illnesses such as cold or flu. Any upper respiratory tract infection will be knocked scatty by an ESB session, and if you follow it with a stinking hot curry – made by your own fair hand in post-pub kitchen chaos – you may well find you awake next morning free of symptoms. I am tempted to write to the World Health Organisation suggesting ESB as a Covid-19 palliative. Watch this space – intently.

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