After my last column on American breweries selling out to huge multi-national conglomerates, I thought I would shake it up a bit … and review beers from a world-famous European brewery owned by a British conglomerate named Diageo.
That brewery is the St. James’s Gate Brewery of Dublin, Ireland, that makes the most iconic stout in the world: Guinness Draught. Yes, Guinness, while brewed largely in Ireland, is no longer truly Irish. I am magnanimously putting aside my almost-universal rule of not buying from “Big Beer” for the sake of you, my readers. I know, I know: How very selfless of me, right?
I have not tried a vast majority of the special releases from Guinness largely out of cynicism. However, I have more therapy sessions in the books now, and I think it’s high time I push aside the sneering attitude of my past; pull some beers off the shelf that would make a previous version of me scoff; and swallow my pride, along with a beer or two. (OK, you got me: This is a thinly veiled excuse to drink beer. But this should prove interesting nonetheless.)
I purchased single bottles of Guinness brands, old and new; then, over the course of a few days, I did my best to be a fair, objective beer judge. If you are so inclined, these can all be purchased easily at your local alcohol superstore; you are welcome to try them alongside my reviews and see where you agree or differ. I’d really like to hear your thoughts on these beers. Now on with the show!
Guinness Draught: 4.2 percent Irish stout—It makes sense to begin at the beginning. The beer poured its characteristic opaque black with the off-white, perfect nitro head. It smelled of roasted grain and malt, but subtly. The taste was similar: It was very creamy, but somehow very light-bodied, almost to the point of being watery. I’m not sure if this was changed more recently, or if my tastes have moved along since 1995, but there really isn’t as much flavor here as I remember. None of the flavor is bad, though … just meh. Pro frat-party tip: This might be the easiest beer to shotgun out of a can ever. People who think this beer is too heavy and thick are victims of their own imaginations.
Extra Stout: 5.6 percent Irish extra stout—This seems to also have been watered down since I last tried it. It was like the Draught, but with more of a roasted character and a little bit of a warmer, alcohol finish. I always described this version of Guinness as the espresso to the Draught’s latte. There are different versions of this beer made especially for certain markets. Nigeria and Jamaica are said to have the better ones, but I’ve not yet been able to get either. It’s not bad by any means, but not what I remember. Again, that could very well be me.
Irish Wheat Ale: 5.3 percent German hefeweizen—No, that’s not a misprint. This is a German-style wheat beer, brewed using 100 percent Irish wheat, malted by their maltster—for the first time in the brewer’s 259-year history. Guinness’ traditional yeast apparently gives off clove phenols and banana esters naturally, and are just “held back” during fermentation when they make their normal lineup of beers. It even had the traditional leftover bit of yeast in the bottle that is customary in Bavaria to swirl with the final portion of beer and pour into the top of the glass. Color me impressed—and, in this case, golden, along with the body of the beer. It smelled a bit like spiced banana bread. The malt was reminiscent of a mild sugar cookie of some kind. The taste offered notes of banana, subtle clove and bubblegum with a faint hint of straw and lemon. I found this more subtle, but just as drinkable as a traditional German hefeweizen. The dry finish prevents the beer lingering on or dominating the palate. I was very skeptical when I grabbed this, but it won me over.
Rye Pale Ale: 5 percent rye beer—When I saw a Guinness beer that was made using Mosaic and Cascade hops, I had to pull the trigger out of sheer curiosity. It had a biscuity malt nose with notes of earthiness (almost mushroom-like), citrus and honey. It was not especially dry, but more crisp than, say, an English pale. The label suggests a pepper note, but if it’s there, it’s faint. I hear people prattle on about the rye flavor or nose in beers, and rarely do I actually get that note myself. The rye may have imparted the earthy aroma I detected, however. I also see no sign of those Mosaic and Cascade hops. Despite all of this, this is a fine little beer. If you buy this thinking it should taste like a West Coast hop bomb, be prepared for disappointment.
200th Anniversary Export Stout: 6 percent Irish export stout—This is a beer brewed based off of their own notes from 1817 for a stout to be sent to America. It just so happens 1817 (and this is almost certainly not sheer coincidence) is the year the copyright was put in by Daniel Wheeler for the pivotal drum roaster which allowed maltsters to kiln and roast grains to varying degrees without applying direct fire and introducing smoke. From that invention, black patent malt began to replace Guinness’ entire stock of what previously went into dark beers: inefficient brown malt. Black patent is used here, and right off the bat, I get sweet chocolate, slight coffee and caramel notes with dark fruit aromas and flavors underneath. It finishes a little dry with some roast and a slight astringent sensation to balance out any sweetness. This should be our version of their extra stout. Pretty please, Guinness?
Blonde Ale: 5 percent American blonde—A confession: I’m prejudiced. There are certain things in beer that, when I see them, I immediately dislike them. Glitter beer is high on that list, because it’s a gimmick that adds nothing to the actual product other than giving the beer a closer resemblance to the most annoying thing about strippers. The American blonde ale style finds me reacting in a similar way: It seems to be a style purely for non-beer drinkers—people who were dragged to fine-drinking establishments by others, and who do not want to be offended as their friends try everything else. Even when it’s done well, it is such an underwhelming experience that it just doesn’t seem worth it. What’s more: There exists a Belgian blonde style that is full of wonderful aromas and flavors—so when I think of the Belgian counterpart, I’m even more disappointed by American blondes. Well, this prejudice bites me on the ass on occasion. I wanted to not like this beer. It has a bit of a biscuity aroma with a hint of pilsner malts and slight floral hops. I was expecting to taste a typically boring, American blonde ale when, lo and behold, some more interesting—Irish malt flavors—sprang forth. Do I actually like this? Well, yes, but let’s put this into perspective: I would drink this gladly if handed to me at a party. Would I choose to have another one with a selection of other styles available to me? No, I would not. (This prejudice against blondes does not extend to women, by the way. I am not pretty enough to exclude anybody based on hair color.)
Antwerpen: 8 percent foreign/extra stout—This is included here as an honorable mention, because it was only available for a limited time. This, to me, is the jewel in the crown of Guinness, and it is an absolute crime against most of humanity that it isn’t available year-round here. It had something I had never previously experienced from a Guinness beer: smokiness. This is imported to Antwerp, Belgium, by Guinness, and we have to beg for more, I guess. It had all the positives of their export stouts—except it was richer, with that added smoked malt edge, and all at a sneaky 8 percent ABV. If you see this one on the shelves, buy some, and let me know where you found it so I can march out and do the same.
This hereby concludes my review of Guinness’ beer portfolio. The conclusion I am forced to reach is that Guinness is still very capable of producing true world-class beer in a number of different styles. These are beers, however, that won’t often end up in my bag on my way out of the beer store. If I’m fair, though, that goes for a ton of different breweries I love: It’s just a great time to live as a lover of beer! You could buy beer regularly and go for years without having to drink the same beer twice.
Ireland is high up on my list of places I must visit, and when I do, I will very likely find myself at the doorstep of St. James’s Gate with a stout in my hand, a pillowy beer foam mustache, and a smile on my face.
The next one is for you, Mr. Arthur Guinness, for all of your efforts that yielded the beer you and your successors have provided me so many years later. Sláinte!
Brett Newton is a certified cicerone (like a sommelier for beer) and homebrewer who has mostly lived in the Coachella Valley since 1988. He currently works at the Coachella Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Thousand Palms. He can be reached at email@example.com.