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.