Brown's beer: Why Guinness is late to the craft beer party

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It’s a little-known fact (outside beer geek circles) that stout, the beer that defines Ireland, has its origins not in Dublin but London.

In the middle of the eighteenth century, a new style of beer emerged in the City of London’s pubs. The traditional tale its that London’s drinkers would ask their pub landlords for a pint containing a mix of different beers – such as a third each of aged, strong beer, brown ale and fresh, hoppy beer. According to the magnificently pseudonymned Obidiah Poundage, writing in 1760, London’s brewers ‘conceived there was a method to be found preferable to …  these extremes; that beer well brewed, kept its proper time, became racy and mellow, that is, neither new nor stale, such would recommend itself to the public.’

This racy and mellow beer acquired the nickname porter thanks to its popularity among the working classes (‘porter’ used to describe a much wider range of jobs than it does now) and soon became so popular one foreign visitor described it as ‘the universal cordial of the populace’.

At this time, many beers were aged for up to a year to condition before going on sale. The bigger the barrels you used to age the beer, the more efficient it was to brew, and the leading London porter breweries became the first industrial-scale brewers, developing economies of scale which meant they could sell beer to pubs cheaper than they could brew it themselves. Whitbread in Chiswell Street, Truman’s in the East End, Thrale’s in Southwark and various others became some of the richest men in the country, their breweries leading the dizzying innovation of the industrial revolution.

Seeing the success of porter, a Dublin-based brewer called Arthur Guinness hired a London brewer to help him develop his own. Guinness’ beers became very popular, especially his stronger, ‘extra stout’ porter, which by the nineteenth century was known simply as ‘stout’.

Porter and stout, along with pale ale, brown ale and mild ale, became staples of every brewer in every town across the UK and Ireland. What allowed Guinness to become a global icon, so synonymous with the style that for most people, Guinness IS stout, was a remarkably clever difference in business strategy in the 1890s.

Beer consumption peaked in the 1870s. Facing falling custom, pubs and brewers made a pact whereby the brewer would finance the development and upgrading of the pub, in return for the pub being ‘tied’ to that brewer and agreeing to only sell its beers. In the closing years of the nineteenth century breweries floated on the stock exchange to raise the capital to tie as many pubs as they could before their competitors got them.

When most British pubs were tied, with demand still falling, bigger brewers began to swallow smaller brewers, often closing the breweries and discontinuing the beers, just to get hold of their pubs.

Guinness took a different path. Instead of tying pubs, it used its flotation cash to build a brand. This brand came to dominate its small country, so export became the only remaining path to growth. In the UK, brewers acknowledged that Guinness was more popular than their own stouts, and Guinness became unique as the only beer brand stocked across all the big tied pub estates when the range of lagers and other ales still depended on which brewer owned the pub.

Guinness became one of the biggest beer brands in the world, certainly the most iconic. But over the last couple of decades it has faced a dilemma in its core markets. Since lager took over the world, people are scared of the dark in beer. Most drinkers look at Guinness and expect it to tastes harsh, bitter and full-bodied. Were they to try it they’d find it smooth, gentle and highly drinkable.

So is Guinness the drink of a discerning few stout connoisseurs? Well, no. Beer geeks know that porters and stouts are supposed to be complex and full-bodied, with notes of chocolate and coffee, and often a roasted bitterness. To them, Guinness is a pale shadow of the style it claims to embody.

For as long as I’ve been writing about beer, Guinness has vacillated between trying to pander to the mainstream and make a virtue of its complexity. We’re currently in the ‘complex’ phase of the cycle, with a new strapline, ‘Made of More’.

This is certainly the right place for Guinness to be while we’re having a global craft beer revolution, and now, Guinness has finally addressed craft beer head on.

Porter and stout are important styles in the craft beer revolution, and Guinness knows more about brewing them than anyone else. So when I heard that Guinness was launching a new ‘Dublin Porter’ and ‘West Indies Porter’ my first thought was ‘what took you so long?’

I was sent a couple of bottles of each, and decided to try them alongside two existing Guinness products.

Certainly the bottles look great. Both the bottle shape and label design pull off that wonderful trick of looking like they’ve been discovered in a warehouse after a hundred years while still looking contemporary. Hearty congratulations to the marketing department on that one.

If only you hadn’t interfered with the beer itself.

Dublin Porter is 3.8% ABV, which makes the claim that it’s based on ‘a 1796 entry in our brewers’ diaries’ difficult to believe. I found it a little salty, a bit metallic, and wholly unsatisfying. I couldn’t detect any of the ‘dark caramel notes’ promised on the label. If I’d tasted it blind, I might have mistaken it for a mainstream lager.

Guinness Original is next up the scale at 4.2% ABV. At least the caramel maltiness is here, and there’s a touch of dark roast barley at the end. A die-hard Foster’s fan might mistake it for challenging, but anyone who drinks it objectively should find it pleasant if not that interesting.

I expected more from the export-strength West Indies Porter (6% ABV). It is a big step up from the other two, with a whiff of candy sugar on the nose and quite a bit of toffee on the palate, and a little sourness on the finish. But it doesn’t taste like a full-bodied porter, certainly not an export strength one. At this stage I need to check my palate is working properly, so I open a Powerhouse Porter from Sambrooks in Wandsworth. At 4.9% ABV it’s substantially lighter than West Indies Porter so I’d expect it to have a more delicate profile. But the rich chocolate, coffee and vinous notes blow away any of the Guinness beers so far, And it’s not just about power and strength of flavour, it’s about balance: the whole experience is very pleasant, without any of these sour or metallic notes that come to the fore when the flavour is missing.

It’s not as if Guinness don’t know how to make a decent stout. Finally I try Guinness Foreign Extra Stout from their Nigerian brewery, one of the best stouts in the world freely available on a dusty shelf in your nearest corner shop. Like the other Guinneses, it’s clean, but there’s so much more to it: chocolate and red wine on the nose, burnt brown sugar, more chocolate and even a bit of tobacco on the palate, with some savoury roast notes at the finish.

I’m so glad Guinness has taken the step of digging into its archives for inspiration. But it still seems to think the drinkers it is targeting are scared of flavour. Breweries such as Kernel and Fuller’s are also exploring old brewers’ diaries and pulling out recipes, and their beers taste very different from this.

This is a perfect example of what happens when a beer’s profile is ultimately decided by focus groups rather than brewers. This – and arguably this alone – is the main difference between ‘craft’ beer and industrial beer.

So go on, Guinness – having come this far, now it’s time you really let your brewers off the hook. Let’s see what they can do.

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