Although tinned craft beer has been something of a hot topic recently, it’s not been that easy to get hold of them. But it turned out that, after waiting ages, three turned up in my fridge at once: BrewDog new Punk IPA (from the website); Maui Brewing Big Swell IPA (also from the BrewDog website); and Caldera IPA (from Beer Ritz).
BrewDog Punk IPA (5.6%)
This is the new Punk, more Green Day than The Clash. I wasn’t that impressed the first time I opened these cans, but that may well have been because I did so in less than ideal tasting conditions: the cans were warmer than they should have been, having just lifted them out of the post, and I’d just tried not one but four 75 IBU beers, in BrewDog’s IPA Is Dead range.
However, cold from the fridge and enjoyed at home in a tulip glass, it was a different matter altogether. Upon cracking open the brew(dog)ski, you immediately get a lovely sweet waft of mango. I noticed this the first time I tried it but now I also found the old, mouthwatering, grapefruit bitterness mixed in with the new fruity sweetness, which added up to a really nice finish; perhaps not as long as it used to be, but still very good. So yes, I take it back: new Punk in cans is definitely worth picking up.
Maui Big Swell IPA (6.2%)
A sweet, appley Cidona smell upon opening the can: again the aroma is fantastic and the can (or at least the way you open it) seems to help this. A sweeping fresh tropical fruity taste with a light grapefruity bitterness. Kate and I decided that there was pine and apple in the taste, and indeed some pineapple too.
Whilst still very light and refreshing overall, compared to the BrewDog the slightly higher ABV results in a heavier mouthfeel, but that’s only really noticeable after a few gulps. Again a really nice beer and nothing to suggest the can has done anything other than keep the beer very fresh and hoppy.
Caldera IPA (6.1%)
Noticeably more amber than the fuzzy yellow-orange of the previous two, Caldera had a rich sweet piney aroma. This carries through into a lovely instant piney bitterness and a long finish. The mouthfeel is thicker and more viscous again than the Maui. It’s everything you want from a strong American IPA.
All three of the beers were excellent and certainly worth buying again. Canning did seem to suit – or at worst doesn’t seem to detract from – the freshness, bitterness and hoppiness, without any sort of “tinny” taste, that I associate with the usual tinned lager or bitter.
Whilst the Punk IPA is the junior of the three in terms of serious bitterness and ABV, it’s also likely to be more easily available and around half the price of the others to UK cansumers. I’m looking forward to trying it against the keg and maybe the bottled version of the same new recipe Punk IPA. I’m also anticipating having more use for my Aussie can-sleeve, from the Talwood Hotel, Queensland!
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.
For reasons which I shall go into at length in future posts, Guinness is an important beer to me, in a way that isn’t necessarily connected to how good it is. However, I do also think that it’s a good, comforting beer and in those (thankfully increasingly limited) number of places that I end up in with work or friends that has no cask beers, no interesting bottles and otherwise only lagers on tap, I’ll usually have a Guinness.
If you go to the Guinness visitor’s centre and read between the lines, you’ll quickly realise that Guinness has been brilliantly marketed over the years, going back to the 1920s at the very least. However it does make the occasional misstep, usually when it tries to be innovative or expand its range. These are rarely horrible disasters, but always seem short-lived and are presumably commercial failures (see Guinness Red).
The most successful Guinness innovation in my memory has been the widgeted can. Guinness developed the widget technology, launched it in 1989 and improved on it with the floating widget in 1997. It was an clever, scientific solution to the problem that draught* Guinness (i.e. the nitrokegged version which has been on bars since 1964) seemed like a very different drink to the original “fizzy” Guinness available in bottles or cans.
As an aside: I think my tastes may be changing as I learn more about beer. I might sit down soon and compare widgeted and unwidgeted canned Guinness. I suspect I might start to prefer the latter as I always remember it having a stronger flavour and being much less creamy, which put me off when I was younger.
However this does create a problem when there’s no Guinness on tap but you want to sell it from pub fridges. We don’t seem to like cans in pubs. I don’t know if they seem cheap, or perhaps fail to fit into the pub experience. I’ve caught a little bit of the current debate about American craft brewers using cans and it possibly being the way of the future. However I would say that, in my experience, beer out of a can always tastes slightly of the can.
Diageo’s (Guinness’ parent company) previous solution to this has been to sell widgeted bottles. I don’t really know what to do with one of them: they’re covered in opaque plastic and usually presented without a glass, so you can’t see the beer. Then you end up drinking from a glass bottle with a plastic widget (which is larger than the neck of the bottle) floating in it like a ping pong ball.
A can of “draught Guinness” and a pint glass is a more appealling solution to me, as at least you can see it settle. Diageo appreciate that the visual experience of a draught Guinness settling is something that is part of the attraction. Which has resulted in a new and peculiar delivery technique which I’ve started to see in pubs: the “surger”.
A couple of months ago I went into the Lazy Lounge (Wellington Street, Leeds) with work colleagues and saw that, contrary to my expectations, they had Guinness on the bar. I ordered it, except what appeared to be a Guinness tap actually turned out to be a “surger” point. The barman went to the fridge and pulled out a slightly unusual can of Guinness and poured some flat black liquid into a smaller-than-pint glass. He then put the glass of flat black liquid on a metal disc on the surger point. Ultrasonic waves passed through the glass and suddenly the usual cloudiness and creamy head started to appear.
Except… when I tried it, it tasted exactly like widget-canned Guinness: mainly like draught Guinness, but a bit tinny. Moreover, I felt I’d been cheated, as the thing on the bar looked like a tap from where I was standing. I can see the point of the system in that it adds a bit of a show to ordering a can of Guinness and gets a lit-up bit of black plastic that says “Guinness” on the bar, in the customer’s face. But frankly it just seems like an uneccessary piece of faffing – smoke and mirrors which doesn’t improve the beer in any way.
This Morning Advertiser article says that the that the Guinness surger was originally sold as a home device a few years ago but – and this is a wonderfully dry piece of journalism – “was dropped following ‘borderline’ success.” Following success in bars in the Asian market, it’s apparently going to be rolled out more widely in the UK to many more pubs that don’t have room for Guinness in the cellar.
As Tom Waits said:
I got the style but not the grace,I got the clothes but not the face,I got the bread but not the butter,
I got the window but not the shutter,
But I’m big in Japan, I’m big in Japan…
* Here’s where I show my ignorance: is it draught or draft? Is this an American English/British English thing? I’ve been trying but can’t identify consistent usage on either side. Guinness themselves use “draught”, albeit to refer to something which isn’t.