Bottle (Or Can) Of Guinness? Daresay I Will.

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In recent postings I gave my thoughts on the famous beer of Ireland as they relate to draft Guinness.

Here are some ponderings on the various bottled and canned forms available in the market today. Historically, it was necessary to distinguish reaction to draft and bottled. The bottled beer called Extra Stout was, until the 90’s in England and about 2000 in Ireland, unfiltered and unpasteurized beer. In this sense, it harked back to an earlier time in the brewery’s history, when all its beer was sold this way. As explained earlier, the company turned what had been a cask beer into a pasteurized and gas-charged keg draft. Guinness fans thus looked increasingly to the bottled Extra Stout for the “real thing”.

An interesting feature of Guinness is that all bottling until quite late in the company’s history was in effect contracted out. Guinness sent the beer out in bulk form and it was bottled by local companies in the different regions of England, say. In Ireland, bottling was often done by the pubs themselves, in the cellar. Inevitably, inconsistency resulted and finally the brewery took all bottling in, preserving for a time the tradition of natural-conditioning in bottle.

I remember the beer on trips to the U.K. in the 80’s and 90’s. It was very good with a characteristic earthy (yeasty) note and a definite touch of bramble-like fruit. The dark fruit, or estery, note is very old in porter-brewing. As far back as the 1700’s and 1800’s, beer manuals either noted the characteristic in matured porter or advised to add elderberry wine to young beer emulate it. George Watkins advised the latter in his brewing text of 1760 for example. I’ve tried this and it does produce something like a winy old beer, the characteristic which a 1921 taste report on Guinness likened to a rare old vintage wine.

Even in 1990 say in London and probably Dublin, only bottled Extra Stout still received this historical deference. The canned stuff and any bottled too sold in off-license retail (vs. pubs) carried filtered and pasteurized Extra Stout. Finally, all bottled forms became pasteurized, sold in the pub or not.

Guinness gave as a reason for pasteurizing the bottled Extra Stout that with warmer central heating, the beer would mature too fast (spoil) before sale and it needed to be stabilized by pasteurization and filtration to be saleable within a 9 month window. The background is explained here in a detailed study of the history of bottled Guinness by ex-Guinness brewer David Hughes. Personally I find the explanation unpersuasive, as many modern craft beers are unfiltered and easily last 9 months and more. However, a factor may have been that this Extra Stout was under 5% abv. Modern craft beers are generally higher so the extra alcohol may preserve them for longer – and they probably on average are hopped more than Guinness. Hops preserve beer from souring at least for a time. Be that as it may, the last vestige of “real ale” Guinness disappeared when the brewery ceased to offer naturally-conditioned Guinness in the bottle.

The later-introduced “widget” or nitro system canned and bottled Guinness (shaped bottle), an emulation of the nitro-draft dispense, is all pasteurized. Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, the well-known strong Guinness which has some features of 1800’s Guinness, has been pasteurized since the late 1940’s. It’s a decent beer, I just had some in New York, but doesn’t attain to the complexity and wine-like characteristic of the best matured porter and stout, IMO. This version of the beer is not available for some reason in Canada.

Canadians have a special connection to the bottled stout in that yet a different version of Extra Stout is brewed under license in Ontario and New Brunswick by Labatt (AB-InBev-owned). The first time I had Guinness was in the 70’s in Montreal and it was this version. In Ontario, it is sold in the Beer Store system and you can find it occasionally in a LCBO. This version is IMO not that great, it has something of the Guinness taste but is not as good as the standard imported draft and widget Guinness. Apparently, Dublin sends a flavour extract to distant breweries and when added to a pale base beer, it becomes Guinness. The Labatt Guinness has a slight acerbic note and a burnt-cork taste. I’m told it is popular amongst the Caribbean expatriate community in the Greater Toronto Area.

The legend that is Guinness carries on but no doubt for valid commercial reasons as it saw them at the time, the company resolutely modernized its production and packaging processes. To put the change as tersely as possible, it converted to “sterile brewing”, used in the sense of strict technical and microbiological control and no use of wood (hard to clean) in production. As Hughes explains, all this was a trade-off. Was the best naturally-conditioned Extra Stout better than pasteurized, stable Extra Stout? Undoubtedly. But the clean modern version was a heck of a lot better than a sour or funky bottle of unfiltered stout kept too long in a London pub…

In a world where craft beer, almost always unpasteurized but sometimes filtered, is making increasing gains, offering no beer in naturally-conditioned form or at least filtered but unpasteurized form, seems like odd man out. Guinness should return to the market some beer in a more traditional form, not just because that is what many fans who wish the beer well want, but for its own business reasons. We shall see if St. James Gate has the vision to do this. If it doesn’t, I wouldn’t rule out that Guinness might start to see a precipitous decline in sales along the lines of Budweiser, say. Bud Light is still a big seller but regular, full-strength Bud is hardly the ten league strider it once was.

The company should consider in particular, i) returning some Extra Stout to naturally-conditioned form, ii) ditto for all Foreign Extra Stout at least Dublin-brewed, and iii) abandoning pasteurization for draft Guinness sold in Ireland and the U.K., at least in high-turnover locations. At its new experimental brewery in Dublin, it should make draft Guinness to 1800s methods. This means: all-malt, use of unfermented wort to naturally condition the beer, and 1800s-level hop rates.

Despite this, I like all Guinness in any form provided it is very fresh. It is still a good beer. I simply feel it could once again become a great beer.

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Note re first image above: the charming old Guinness ad is from 1931 and was sourced here. Believed in public domain, but all feedback welcomed.


2 thoughts on “Bottle (Or Can) Of Guinness? Daresay I Will.

  1. I’ve had the corporate culture of Guinness described to me as being effectively two companies: Supply and Demand. I understand these were once formal divisions and while they no longer are, things still work along those lines. Supply is the brewers. They are interested in beer and all the ways it can be produced and how to make it as well as possible. They have the ways and means to brew the sort of Guinness you would like. But then there’s Demand. Demand is the public face of the company, the finance and marketing and all the white-collar stuff. Demand makes all the decisions and Demand is completely and consistently clueless about beer. They do not get it; they have no understanding of the company’s history other than as source material for marketing. They would not even understand what it is you’re asking. Or rather, when they take a request like yours they run it through so many different corporate processes that what comes out the other side and passed down to Supply for production is Guinness Dublin Porter and West Indies Porter.

    The Brewers Project is a well-meaning attempt by Demand at breaking down the wall that separates Supply from drinkers like yourself. But Demand is still making the decisions which is why The Brewers Project, and its off-shoot The Open Gate Brewery, has yet to produce worthwhile results. Time will tell, but I can’t see Demand loosening its grip. It’s like the scorpion in the fable: that’s just its nature.

    • A very interesting comment, thanks. It reminds me, but in the reverse way, of something the founder of an early American craft brewery (1980s) once told me. Before founding his brewery, he had worked as a sales manager for a national brewer. In this capacity of selling the product he noticed a slow but rising demand for craft beers, the type made by Sierra Nevada and other emerging small brewers. He mentioned this to the production people and asked for a beer of this type that could be added to the company’s range. And they told him, “You’ll sell what we make”. So, the same kind of division you referred to, but the resistance was on the brewing side of the wall.

      More typically though, what you described may be the reality for many large, established companies which have been doing things a certain way for generations, and especially when success has resulted, one can’t blame them in a sense. The only thing is, at a certain point, a company can miss the boat so to speak, in a way that it never returns to port. I believe an example of this is Budweiser (vs. Bud Light). The brand, which in my own memory has gotten lighter and lighter in taste and bitterness since about 1970, could have been restored at many points since then to a circa-1870’s recipe, or 1933, or 1950. But no one saw the value of doing this or even offering a special version of the beer, a “classic” version say. Had this been done I believe this would have been very successful whereas now, that famous brand seems in terminal decline.

      Contrast, say Heineken, which returned its beer to all-malt about 20 years ago… One may contrast too small regional companies, as old as Anheuser-Busch or more so, which engaged in contract brewing or introduced their own flavourful lines, eg., Matt Brewing in Utica, NY, Yuengling, PA, and a number in the Midwest.

      Some companies have a culture therefore, where there is less division between the two worlds you described. Or something happens to make it change.

      I hope Guinness in time, meaning the business as a whole, sees the value of understanding better its early brewing history. This focus on tradition has worked very well for other alcohol industries which are certainly not small in scale or marketing sophistication, the malt whisky business is a good example. Who better than Diegeo to understand how that works but again it’s probably a question of different parts of that very large total business working independently. Sometimes it take a particular executive viewpoint to make a change, a good example is Eugene Kashper at Pabst in the U.S. This company for decades sold almost exclusively price (value) beers but recently brought back Ballantine India Pale Ale and Ballantine Burton Ale and is planning to introduce more flavourful beers from its archives. It is doing so not surely as a selfless nod to a relatively few beer lovers, but because it sees the way the wind is blowing…

      Gary

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