Guinness seems to exercise a special fascination on the beer community, despite that Guinness draft, its marquee product for decades, has a rather mainstream flavour. Or non-craft flavour if you will.
I’ve probably got a dozen pieces now here on various aspects of Guinness, the last one discussed the views of a Dubliner who remembered pre-nitrogen-dispense Guinness.
I’ve mentioned a number of times tasting Special Export, Foreign Extra Stout, Extra Stout and Guinness draft. Today I thought I’d mention my earlier impressions of Guinness, serially as I tried the products from about 1971.
The first Guinness I had was the Labatt-brewed one introduced in Canada in 1965. I encountered it first in Quebec, maybe 1971.
Guinness and Labatt (now AB InBev) formed a venture where, according to online sources that sound credible, Labatt brewed a pale ale mash to which was added a hopped wort extract sent from Dublin. Its fermentation became Guinness Extra Stout here, at 5% abv.
It’s still sold, and tastes about the same as way back then.
It had a dry, burnt “chalky” taste, not a bad drink but not one that really seemed, looking back in the light of so much taste experience including historical recreations of stout, all that traditional. But you wouldn’t mistake it for any usual Canadian beer, true.
The next one, again early 1970s, was Guinness Extra Stout (nominally the same beer) as sent to the U.S. from Dublin. That one was much sweeter, richer, and I think higher in abv than the Canadian one. I remember a soy-like quality. There are good period descriptions in U.S. beer books whose authors I’ve often mentioned here.
The next was Guinness draft, the nitro-charged one that resulted from the savvy of Guinness brewing technologists. It was sent out internationally from the 60s if not earlier, and finally supplanted cask stout in the Republic by the mid-60s. How this beer aroused such passions in 1960s and 70s London is a mystery to me.* Its blandness was the main trait I noted, and this when I had had few if any craft beers (that was just starting).
It`s not a question of beer not travelling well either, as I`ve had Guinness draft many times in England, France, and once at Dublin airport and they tasted very similar.
I think my dislike of the nitrogen system started then. It has as much to do with the gas itself as the beer, I don’t like it as applied even to flavourful craft beers.
So net net to that point, the basic exported Extra Stout, filtered and pasteurized as it was, was a good product and worthy of the Guinness name and heritage.
After that, I tasted Foreign Extra Stout including one from Nigeria, one from Hong Kong and one or more from the Caribbean. The Irish one was best and the earliest samples, maybe early 1990s, were better than today’s, IMO. The lactic edge seems reduced, and in general the beer is rather light for what was all-malt and heavily hopped originally.
After that came 8% Special Extra Stout in France and Belgium, also early 90s. Excellent certainly but as tasted five years ago, rather less good IMO. I thought Special Extra Stout was all-malt 20 and 30 years ago. My last tasting seemed to suggest it’s not today. That may be one factor in the change if in fact my recollection of all-malt is right.
And then I found Guinness West Indies Porter a couple of months ago in France: best of the bottled bunch and something I would buy here happily. It is the closest to a 19th century flavour so far and clearly some effort was put into that although as always with large companies the fine points of production can be elusive.
Current Extra Stout, also labeled Original, as sent to the U.S. is good, but once again the second time I had it, it seemed less good. (Up until a few years ago, Labatt-brewed Guinness was sent to the U.S. to serve as Extra Stout, but this has now been replaced by Irish-brewed Extra Stout, a more creditable arrangement).
Guinness has issued other tweaks of its famous drink. There was a 200th anniversary one that seemed little different from the normal one except a tad more roasty. There is the newish Dublin Porter (bottled), I haven’t had it yet but online reviews don’t seem that encouraging.
And I almost forgot: the widget can and widget bottle Guinness, intended to deliver the draft nitro effect. I’m not a fan. While the adjunct element in any Guinness grates to a purist like myself, it seems most prominent in the latter format.
So where does it end up? There’s a couple of good products in there, notably the West Indies Porter and Foreign Extra Stout. Maybe Special Export and the 1944 Antwerp version (seemingly the same beer) too but I reserve judgment until I taste them. And none of the beers just mentioned are available in Ontario or anywhere in Canada.
Considering the gold-plated history of this company, considering that it still has not issued a bottle- or cask-conditioned version of current Guinness much less a 19th century recreation, it’s not that much really. I say it more in sadness than annoyance. I know well how large companies operate. I’ve seen many storied old names become rather ordinary, not just beer but other drinks and many foods. It does seem an almost inevitable pattern.
But there are exceptions, Pilsner Urquell, say, or Heineken to a degree. A number of German beers. Fuller’s beers in London. Etc.
Does it matter? Well, to me, yes. Despite the plethora of craft products, Guinness is special simply because it is Guinness. Its procedures, ingredients, especially the yeast and hop bill, are not quite like any others. Deployed in a craft way, which is another way of saying going back to the roots, should produce something, not just very good, but Guinness-good.
I think Guinness should focus on the new Blonde beer which is very nice, on launching West Indies Porter and a draft version into many more markets, and on making available some naturally-conditioned stout. This will delight fans who know the Guinness history well and admire the many creditable features of the company including its longevity, importance to Irish history and its economy, and adapatiblity to changing market and other conditions.
*If it was all-malt then, or even all-malt but for roasted barley adjunct, that might explain it.
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