A True Pint of Plain…

Any discussion of great beer seems to come around sooner or later to Guinness. In my case, it’s sooner, given the youthful status of this blog – less than one month old!

Guinness is a great name in beer history, certainly. Is it a great beer, today? This is a claim too far, in my view. At its freshest and kept well, it is a reliable and goodish quaff. That is praise enough in a time when beer can vary wildly from brand to brand and even from glass to glass for the same brand.

Was it better in the past? Well, I am old enough to remember the bottle-conditioned version, phased out about 20 years ago in the U.K. and finally Ireland. It was an excellent beer, it had a definite estery note, an earthy quality and seemed slightly tart. It is hard to say if the tartness came from the measure of old vatted beer still supposedly used in the blend or from the percentage of unmalted barley in the brew – in my experience adjunct can sometimes impart a kind of sharp or sour note.

I am not old enough to remember naturally-conditioned stout in its heyday. Until the mid-1960’s, Guinness draught stout was a naturally-conditioned product.  Reading different sources in beer historical literature, it seems it was composed of three elements: freshly brewed stout, aged (vatted) stout which picked up some brett notes, and partially fermented wort. Only a few percentage points of the second was included, perhaps 5% but the figure was probably larger in the 1800’s. As to the third, a half-fermented wort would offer rich extract to condition the beer in the cask. This is a kind of krausen. English brewing writer Frank Faulkner in an 1888 brewing text claimed that adding wort at the right stage of fermentation gave Irish stout – he was undoubtedly talking about Guinness, at a minimum – its special qualities including the famous creamy head. The old romance about the ‘wine of Ireland’ has to have some basis in fact.

“Low cask, high cask”, used at least in the mid-1900’s in Ireland to mix an older (flatter) and younger (brisker) stout in the bar, seems a variation on the tripartite blend mentioned.   Each of the low and high casks was probably composed of the same stout, presumably the tripartite mix, but at different stages of development which assisted getting the head exactly right and perhaps the palate. In any case, these refinements were gone after the mid-1960’s in Ireland – stout dispensed by a mixture of nitrogen gas and carbon dioxide became the norm. This dispense, common now not just for Irish-style stout but some other types of beer,  did copy the creamy head of yore but probably didn’t deliver the old palate. Perhaps not many noticed since draught stout at least in Ireland was still unpasteurized after nitro-dispense came in until that was done away with too. All Guinness today, bottled or draft, is pasteurized as far as I know.

There must be craft brewers, hopefully in Ireland too, who have sold a cask or keg of stout or porter comprised of older and newer stock, but has any sought in addition to use half-fermented wort to condition the beer? The combination of these processes surely would give a distinctive stamp, one which would give an Irish Victorian character. I believe this would be so even if the typical modern mash template was used of pale malt + black (roasted) malt. Authenticity would be enhanced of course if 1800’s-levels of hopping and an authentic grist-type were also used, say, pale malt, amber malt and black – lots of directions in the old books how to achieve that part.

Who will take this on, gentle brewers? Old Erin calls out for a restoration of the venerable staple of Dublin, town and country. If anyone is game I’ll post some guidance from old tomes.

4 thoughts on “A True Pint of Plain…”

  1. The complex Irish stout recipe you’re proposing is indeed under construction at White Gypsy. Cuilán has learned barrel-ageing and souring from first principles over the past few years, and even planted a hop garden. So we’ve had his Irish-hopped pale ale, his blended barrel-aged stouts and his Flanders-ish red. The goal of all these pilot beers is to proof the techniques required to produce a vatted, blended, soured Irish stout made from 100% Irish ingredients, as was done before the 1960s. I’ll report on it when it appears (if I get any) but it promises to be a very interesting product.

    • Excellent! I hope he adds the extra fillip of conditioning for draft service with headings or fillings (half-fermented wort) as it was called, that would cap it.

      I should add the fillings technique was used for local (domestic Ireland) requirements only, not export stout and not, I believe, any of the bottled forms. (The time for conditioning was long enough for these forms that adding fillings was not necessary or desirable).

  2. Another great post, Gary. One question about Guinness and consistency: I believe I’ve shared with you how the Guinness-drinkers in my family in Co. Cork would rotate their preferred local, visiting whichever one was currently pouring the best pint. This rotation would take place every few weeks or months (and with 50 pubs in a town of 2,000, they had plenty of choice).
    My question: can there really be such a wide variance in the quality/taste of Guinness, or is my family simply mad?

    • Sean, many thanks for this excellent question. Far be it from me to question the nicety of judgment of Irish Guinness drinkers! I am sure they were right, in that even a pasteurized, stable product can exhibit differences depending that is how long the kegs have been stored, the state of the pub’s lines (perhaps they inclined towards pubs who had most recently had the lines cleaned and flushed), or which served the beer at an ideal temperature. Possibly when these factors combined in the optimum way, that was the occasion to sally to a new hostelry.

      However, I have met few people as polite as you are, and that is saying something amongst a clan – Canadians – famous for this quality. Thus, I hazard that living in a relatively small town, most people wanted to be seen spreading their custom, small-town life might dictate that. In an attempt not to offend, it might be easier to say, it’s the beer dictating the tourney, not the need to dispense patronage in a wider circle.

      In a country though where Guinness lasted, in its optimal forms, so long, decades after the English which started porter-brewing abandoned the style, I incline to the first theory. Good beer drinkers know good beer, they just do albeit not always or even customarily being able to say why…

      Thanks for pitching (sorry!) in here, don’t be a stranger.


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