Getting At The Character Of Guinness 100 Years Ago And More
In my previous post on the character of draft Guinness in its classic era, I speculated on the palate as malty sweet with a winy edge from wood vatting. One must figure into that a decided bitterness, as Guinness was well-hopped, and also a charred edge from roasted malt – the stuff that makes the drink almost black. That character, drawn inferentially from technical data, is more than matched by a rare and articulate “taste note” on Guinness which survives from 1921. The account which follows is an extract from a fuller piece quoted by beer author Ron Pattinson in his book, Peace!:
There is something unspeakably seductive and evasive of true description about a first-class Irish stout, it is extraordinarily full and round, mellow and succulent. Yet is it bitter – but that somehow you don’t notice. Behind it and enriching the whole lies that soupcon of strange lactic-like sub-acidity. This infinitely charming beverage compounded of so many different flavours, is most fascinating and wholly characteristic and unapproachable in type.
Head and shoulders, so far as universal popularity is concerned, above other brands, stands out Guinness. Some of the other Dublin brands come remarkably near a prototype; but none has, or, at all events in pre-war days had quite full measure of the Guinness touch. Cork stouts have a delightful soft palatability and a distinction of their own.
To the mind of the writer it is the will-o’-the-wisp sub-acidity that does the trick in Irish stout. Take it away and you’ve little left but a black, heavy, dry, but very soft and full mild ale with a lot of hops in it — nothing very characteristic or outstanding. Curious that no one has succeeded in fathoming and grasping that extraordinary suggestion of a rare old vintage wine — something lactic it exposes to us — hidden away in the chocolate-coloured depths….. [T]he home consumption product has a veritable perfection of nicety of balance in this respect: it is indeed a wonderful work of the Art of Brewing.
When this was written, Guinness was richer in palate than today. Its attenuation, about 70% in 1861 (70% of the fermentable extract consumed in fermentation), climbed to 85% after 1950, where it is presumably today – you can’t go much higher.
In addition, Guinness was 100% barley malt until the mid-1900s – no raw grains.
Thus, the Guinness of this lyrical description would have been full-bodied and fairly sweet yet with a vinous élan. The Bacchic touch was attributable to lactic acid produced by extended aging of a portion of the beer in large wood vats. So balanced and perfect in palate was it that the heavy hop bitterness stout was known for was barely noticed.
The description gives some indication why Guinness became renowned, not just for beer quality around the globe, but for almost creating its own beer type. Indeed to this day, Guinness connotes not just a brand name but almost a style unto itself.
Guinness has released a couple of beers recently which claim an historical heritage, a Dublin Porter and West Indies Porter, but I understand they are not period recreations as such. I haven’t had the chance to try them, but taste notes I’ve read suggest to me these beers, while worthy, don’t aspire to the kind of superstar palate lauded in the 1921 account.
If anyone wants to try an experiment to re-create the pre-WW I palate, take any 7-8% abv rich but well-bittered stout provided it has no chocolate, coffee or other flavourings. The English Samuel Smith Imperial Stout, at about 8% abv, is a good choice, but countless craft choices qualify as well, or better. In Ontario, I’d choose Grand River Brewing’s Russian Gun. Then, add a couple of teaspoons of wine vinegar to it. You will notice a nervous acid tone, something you mightn’t even pick up on unless you knew it was there.
It may sound odd to some, but “sours” and wild brews are all the rage in beer circles today. Adding a touch of that character to an otherwise standard beer is eminently historical, and pleasing to many in palate. Numerous fine drinks have this type of effect, certain sherries and the Sauternes, for example.
Presumably, Diageo, owner of Guinness, has all the information in its archives to recreate a Guinness Stout of circa-1900. It’s got the spanking new experimental mini-brewery set up. Go to it, team.