Guinness Gives You Strength (4.1%-8%)
Do you know what I am going to tell you, he said with his wry mouth, a pint of plain is your only man.
Notwithstanding this eulogy, I soon found that the mass of plain porter bears an unsatisfactory relation to its toxic content and I subsequently became addicted to brown stout in bottle, a drink which still remains the one that I prefer the most despite the painful and blinding fits of vomiting which a plurality of bottles has often induced in me.
Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)
The post I did a while back on the Guinness Surger got me thinking more about Guinness. Guinness is definitely the beer I’ve drank the most of in my life. Given that Diageo own Guinness, Bushmills whiskey and Gordons gin, I dread to think how much money I’ve thrown their way since reaching adulthood.
My grandfather was a Guinness drinker. He moderately drank bottles of the stuff, generally warmed – for reasons that may now be lost to the ages – by setting it on the stove in the pub or on the fireplace at home. I fell into drinking Guinness, with its carefully crafted image of traditional Irishness and an air of sophisticated adulthood, as the best alternative to the hated lager in a beer desert. Few Guinness-drinkers in Great Britain get asked for ID, in my experience.
Moreover, I know where I am with Guinness more than any other drink. “Sessionable” (*shiver*) as it is, I’ve never gotten terribly drunk or ill off it. Although there was an unfortunate incident one morning when I was a hungover student part-time barman, when I went to the pub toilet for a discreet and brief vomiting fit between the first and second pour of the first customer’s stout. I don’t think he noticed.
Of course most Guinness is less “authentic” than it holds itself out to be. The accepted method of dispense of draught Guinness, the nitro-keg, has only been around since 1964, the year Brendan Behan died. Brian O’Nolan (Flann himself; another terrible man for the drink) only lasted another two years, so I wonder if he ever tried it.
The canned widget Guinness has always seemed to me a reasonable alternative to actual draught Guinness, for applying to the interior of your body when safely in your own home. But in recent years I’ve found them both terribly dull. So I went to the supermarket and Beer Ritz to purchase the materials for an experiment: four different types of Guinness, all with different ABVs and one of which almost twice as strong as the first.
Using half of the “Guinness Original” to make a beef and Guinness which was stewing away in the oven, we set about seeing how they stood up to each other with a side-by-side comparison:
Guinness Draught (4.1% ABV)
Perhaps it’s an unfair test to compare a canned product to four bottled ones, but I couldn’t find any widget bottles of Guinness and in any event cans are the future of craft beer according to some zythofuturologists, so Guinness can lump it too. We all know this one, and for me familiarity has bred, if not contempt, then certainly ennui and potentially an immunity to any taste.
I was going to say it tastes of tin, but I’m not sure if it doesn’t mainly taste of widget. There’s a definite dull metallic wateriness to it that it has in common with cans of smooth Tetley’s, Boddingtons and John Smiths and to me tastes of parties located near off-licences with a very limited range.
When held up to the light, like the Original below, there’s a definite red colour. The wateriness described above makes it very difficult to detect any distinct flavour, but there’s a very slight malt bitterness in the aftertaste.
Guinness Original (4.2% ABV)
Surprisingly very slightly stronger than the draught stuff, this is a real improvement. The flavours are still quite subtle, but the dryness is much more noticeable. Kate noted that the carbonation added to the bitterness and I agreed.
However the flavours are so delicate that they reminded us both of the weaker dark milds I wrote about here. Whilst there’s a very slight roasted flavour, again it’s much milder than someone who had never heard of Guinness would expect a “stout” to be.
Guinness Foreign Extra (7.5% ABV)
Ah, now it suddenly gets exciting. The head on the previous two was a similar light cream, whereas this is much more yellow to brown. The beer is almost totally opaque with a dark treacle aroma.
It tastes nicely bitter, with some caramel, chocolate and, whilst by no means smokey, definitely more roasted. There’s a solid alcoholic punch to the smell and the taste that numbs the tongue at first. The back label says it’s “brewed with extra hops and roasted barley for a natural bite“. It makes you wonder why they don’t usually bother. Very good indeed.
They’ve only released this in America this year, which seems odd, given that it seems to me that Americans love the brand image of Guinness and US craft brewers have done a lot of groundwork in creating a market for imperial stouts.
Guinness Special Export (8% ABV)
Whereas the Foreign Export has a slightly modern look, this beer – exported to Belgium then imported back to these islands to maximise the carbon footprint – has a pleasingly retro label. It was apparently commissioned for export by John Martin of Belgium in 1912 and was the first Guinness to be pasteurised. I would love to try an unpasteurised version of Guinness.
The head on the Special Export is a step back to the whiter colour of the normal ABV versions. This is the first indication that the flavours are more subtle than the Foreign Extra. Again we get the treacle aroma, but although the ABV is higher, there’s less of an obvious alcohol smell.
The bolder flavours of the Foreign Extra contrast sharply with the dry, crisp bitterness of this, which seems like a logical big brother to the Original. Whilst being a surprisingly different beer, it’s also a revelation.
I have no doubt that a plurality of bottles of either of the last two would produce “painful and blinding fits of vomiting“. However it might even be worth it. Suddenly I think I might genuinely like Guinness again, although it’s a shame that the best stuff is about to get whacked with an idiotic tramp lager tax.
Oh, and it makes a damn fine beef stew as well.