I was 17 the first time I had my first really interesting beer. At the time, you either had to go to California for interesting brew or hop the pond to Europe. In my case, I found myself in the U.K. at a place called the Black Lion. The interesting beer in question was a Tetley's Bitter. It was one of those "Wow!" moments — and not because the legal drinking age in Britain was 16, so I didn't have to skirt a felony every time I wanted to hoist one. It was because, for the first time, I drank a beer that was something more than an alcohol delivery system for a spirited half-wit.
I'd been told that everything in Europe was small, but not this beer. It was the first time I'd seen a proper 16-ounce pint. Thinking about those dinky 12-ounce mugs we had back home, I thought, "Mmmm. More."
I had also been given to understand that all the clever people had cleared out of Britain. But that glorious Tetley bitter was an eye-opener. Tetley is "artisanal" in no one's book, but if this was the way the Brits did garden variety, mass-market beer, they must be interesting people. Sure, the Boston Massacre was a bit off-sides, but the Brits couldn't be all bad. Being my first time out of the country, I was soon to discover that Britain was full of interesting things: like the accepted global etiquette of having complete strangers start bitching at me about American foreign policy. But that's another story.
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The "bitter" is a little misleading to Americans (or it was to me). It's basically what the Brits call a Pale Ale. It's got some hops, but a lot less than the average IPA. The style is called different things in the U.K., but over here it's simply known as Extra Special Bitter (ESB). In a lot of ways, the ESB is the perfect beer for making the diplomatic leap from domestic to foreign affairs. It is interesting without being overwhelming. I would say the opposite about that lady in mismatched tweeds who tried to beat me up about Libya.
Fortunately, you don't have to go quite so far for an ESB these days. High Cotton Brewing makes a great one, which they call "ESB," because they are sensible and kind. It is a deep golden beer with medium hops balanced with malt and not terribly carbonated. With a 6 percent ABV, it's stronger than a lot of pilsners, but it isn't going to knock you off your barstool.
As far as food pairings, the ESB plays well with others — from pub grub, to good cheese, and on up the foodie chain. Here is where that balance really comes into play: It complements your food; it doesn't fight it. High Cotton's ESB is available around town, but if you choose to prop up that fine copper bar at Second Line, you can pair it with almost anything without a fear of a misfire. Fried chicken livers, yes; the braised chicken thigh Verno, hard to miss; the oyster po-boy, well, obviously.
If you have an unrealistically high opinion of your own cooking and want to have an ESB at home, you've got a couple of good options: There is High Cotton, of course, but Hattiesburg's own Southern Prohibition Brewing also makes a great Jack the Sipper ESB in a slightly more dramatic can. Worth a search.
As I sat at the bar taking this bitter trip down memory lane, I thought I'd date myself with the story of some deranged Brit bent out of shape about Uncle Sam poking Libya in the eye over something or other. Since then, that has become something of a timeless move for the U.S., so maybe not. And while I can't be sure, I swear I ran into the same lady years later, between the first Gulf War and its sequel. Neither her opinions nor her breath had improved much.