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.
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.