The status of Guinness

Guinness promotional clock, South London.

Our post about the Big Six a while back prompted an interesting response from US beer blogger Bill K, aka the Pittsburgh Beer Snob: the gist was that our list of big brewers looked much cooler than the American equivalent. In particular, Guinness (the seventh member of the Big Six…) is still viewed pretty positively around the world.

But what is its standing in the UK? Well, funnily enough, that subject came up again yesterday.

Pioneering beer writer Richard Boston had this to say in his Guardian column of 22 June 1974:

As you know, “draught” Guinness nowadays is a keg beer, while the real thing is to be found in bottles. The reason draught Guinness is so superior to any other keg beer is that (apart from being a better product to start with) it is delivered not by pure CO2 but by a mixture of 36 per cent CO2 and 64 per cent nitrogen (which is not absorbed by the beer).

In his memoir A Life on the Hop (2009), beer writer and CAMRA leading light Roger Protz recalls his wonderment at drinking draught (keg) Guinness for the first time, describing it as ‘a revelation’. He quotes his CAMRA colleague Barrie Pepper as saying that if all keg beer had been so good, CAMRA would never have got off the ground.

Was Guinness really, really good? Or was its cult appeal partly down to the fact that it was different? By our count of those listed in Frank  Baillie’s Beer Drinkers’s Companion (1973), there were fewer than 60 stouts on sale in the UK in the early 70s, all of them bottled, and most of them of the relatively weak ‘sweet’, ‘nourishing’ or ‘milk’ varieties. As the post-CAMRA microbrewing boom kicked in, and breweries began to released new porters and stouts, perhaps Guinness came to seem less interesting: it ceased to be the most beautiful girl in the room.

By the time we started drinking as students in the 90s, it had a hardcore following of people who identified themselves as Guinness drinkers — a bit quirky, more grown-up than everyone else and ‘pretty chilled out’. It was also the fallback beer of choice for beer geeks in mediocre pubs — reliable and with at least some character, compared to Foster’s or Carling.

As recently as the last couple of years, though, that remaining hint of credibility seems to have all but disappeared, and bars and pubs increasingly signal their ‘craft’ status by announcing that they’ve ripped out the Guinness taps and sourced an alternative stout — perhaps even one made in blatant imitation, with not much more flavour.

What a turnaround.

We don’t have a unified corporate line on Guinness: Boak can’t stand it, while Bailey is always pleasantly surprised by how little its gross monopoly and smug marketing are manifested in its flavour.

41 thoughts on “The status of Guinness”

  1. “if all keg beer had been so good, CAMRA would never have got off the ground.”

    But surely nitrokeg is just giving the Guinness treatment to standard brown beers. And, while I sort of “get” Guinness, I always think nitrokeg ales have a really nasty, soapy character to them which makes them worse than conventional keg.

    1. Yes, odd, isn’t it? It’s less fizzy, though, and fizz was a *major* preoccupation in the 1960s/70s. A lot of debate centred around burping.

      1. I tend to think that if the brewers had not tried to change everything at once, but had gone for filtered but unpasteurised bright beer stored under a CO2 blanket and pumped to the bar rather than dispensed by CO2 pressure, they could have got rid of cask-conditioning without anyone being too bothered. Probably fortunate they didn’t.

        You will possibly have never tasted “tank beer”, but it was far less fizzy than conventional keg and often hard to distinguish from cask when both were being served by electric metered pumps.

        1. Tank beer is about to make a come-back, albeit in a slightly different form, and dispensed by air pressure.

        2. I like your theory, Mudgie. It goes some way towards explaining why Ireland’s drinkers of cask Guinness didn’t kick up en masse when it was replaced with nitrokeg, the way drinkers did in Britain when straight-CO2 keg arrived.

  2. The debate still includes much about burping or at least excess gas. And Bailey has juxtaposed the text. It should read “We don’t have a unified corporate line on Guinness: Boak can’t stand it, while Bailey is always surprised by how little flavour is manifested despite gross monopoly and smug marketing.

    Guinness has progressively lost its taste since the early 70s. To use the Irish vernacular, it is shite. Cardboardy shite at that.

  3. Couldn’t stand Guinness in the UK during the 1980s, but when I went to Dublin couldn’t get enough of the stuff and then when I returned to the UK couldn’t stand it again — not sure what that was about, was the stuff in Ireland unpasteurised or something? FES is still a class act though.

    1. And the best pints of Carling are to be had in Burton-on-Trent…

      Unpasteurised? Pfft! It’s fined, filtered and pasteurised. To be sure, to be sure, to be sure.

      1. This was in 1985 and 1988 (the clue is the 1980s), went back in 2001 and didn’t like it and went to Biddy Early instead.

    2. The Irish version was once unpasteurised, I don’t know when they started flash-pasteurising it but it was before 1993, to judge from Michael Jackson’s writing on the subject. The other thing of course was that the Irish version came from St James Gate, the British version from Park Royal, at least until they closed the latter down a few years back.

    3. one theory I read was that it wasn’t served quite so cold in Ireland, so had more flavour than over-chilled Guinness here..?

      FES is a good corner shop buy, as is the Nigerian one

  4. Like all keg beers, Guinness still relies on good cellarmanship: decent turnover, keeping the beer lines clean. In Ireland, if you don’t look after your Guinness properly, your customers walk. In GB, no-one cares that much. That’s why the standard of Guinness is so much better in Ireland.

    That said, after a week of drinking Guinness in Ireland, I have always ended up longing for a pint of anything else. Fortunately that’s now increasingly possible.

    1. I always find it weird that Guinness is granted special status as though it were an especially delicate flower. The above is true of all beers, and dirty lines will damage a pale beer worse than they will a dark one.

      Irish pubs serving the mainstream brands have to do very little by way of cellarmanship these days: the Big Two look after all that for them.

      I as just flicking through the Irish Times archive looking for reports on the launch of nitrokeg Guinness. May 19 1959 an article is headlined “New dignity for the pint of stout”. Yikes!

      1. You’re absolutely right about all beers suffering from dirty lines: I’ve had some utterly vile keg Pedigree in HK, totally undrinkable, tasting actually nothing like beer, that was clearly down to poor cellarmanship. But people were still drinking it. The point I was trying to make, apparently badly, is that many people don’t know any better, and will drink poor beer regardless. That’s true, I suggest, of a lot of British Guinness drinkers, which is why poorly kept Guinness is more common in GB than it is in Ireland, because poorly kept Guinness is accepted by drinkers in Britain but won’t be tolerated in Ireland.

        I’ve no idea what the general standard of mainstream keg bitter is like in the UK because I never drink it. But I can tell you that it can be pretty rough in bars in Asia.

  5. Speaking outside the British-Irish sphere, many people around the world have a soft spot for Guinness because it was the first beer they drank that was completely different from the stuff they were used to, fizzy, farty lagers for the most part. And in many cases, it was a pint of nitro Guinness what made them start to explore a bit more.

    (The same could be said about mass produced German Weissbiere like Paulaner and Franizkaner and the Leffe/Hoegaarden combo).

  6. I’ve always had a soft spot for Guinness. It was my first legal pint, in the Dark Island Hotel back home on Benbecula, it was different from the lager all my mates were drinking and that cascading bubble effect was just downright cool. These days it has become the beer of last resort when I go to a pub and all they have are 12 taps of various American pale ale iterations and a couple of light lagers of the BMC kind.

    FES though is still the finest export strength stout on the planet.

      1. Makes me wish we could get more Irish Export strength stouts over here then! Most American breweries seem to go from regular strength to imperial without considering the options.

  7. Interestingly, the London Evening Standard once took a barrel of London-bewed Guiness to Dublin and served it up and repeated the experiment the other way.

    In both cases local drinkers couldn’t tell the difference between the two.

    Here in Ireland if you drank a pint of Beamish you’d never sully your lips with draughet Guinness again.

      1. Yes, very much so.
        Guinness has a smokier taste, Beamish is more sour and Murphys is the sweetest of the three.
        Given the choice I wouldn’t drink any of them but in the town where I live, unfortunately, the only choice is between an okayish pint of stout and a really crap, badly-kept one.

        1. I actually don’t mind Murphy’s at all.

          Glad you’ve actually done the blind taste, though. Quite a lot of Irish stout drinkers bluster “Of course I can tell them apart!” without ever actually doing it. And for Guinness and Murphy’s drinkers there’s potentially money to be saved.

          1. The problem with Murphys around these ‘ere parts is that it’s simply not as consistent as Guinness which is a shame considering it’s brewed in Cork.
            If I know the pint is well-kept then I’m happy drinking Murphys ( our old chum Benny McCabe keeps his in tip-top form in Cork ) but if not I prefer Beamish because at least I can get a taste of hops off it whereas I’m afraid Guinness simply tastes of nothing.
            Absolutely nothing except maybe a bit of burned toast.

  8. I did a blind taste test of bottled stouts a while back and ranked Guinness FES dead last. I thought it had a strangely medicinal taste.

    So there’s that, and also the fact that its part of Diageo and has nauseating adverts, and I find very little to like about Guinness in general.

    On draught its just another bogstandard macro, no better or worse than a smoothflow or a lager.

  9. I’ve grown to find this subject fascinating. Is it possible that foreign imports such as Guinness are shipped over here to the states because of America’s reputation to still consume bad beer even with the craft boom going on?

    There are a lot of other/former foreign imports that some of us stay away from (i.e. Corona, Spaten, Lowenbrau, etc.) because they’re now owned by our big companies like AB-InBev and Miller-Coors.

    I’m not sure if it’s just a flaw in American beer society or what, but in even some of what we consider fine drinking pubs Guinness is found on tap. A drinking buddy of mine student taught in England in the 1990′s and one of his greatest memories is drinking Guinness over there. I don’t know the history of beer over there, but it does look as if the beer’s popularity dropped off some how. I’ve noticed that some of you definitely can’t stand it from the bottle. I can’t stand it from the bottle either as it tastes like severely burnt coffee. Draft on the other hand is a different experience.

    I think describing it as a good fallback beer suits it well. Yuengling Traditional Lager (Pottsville, Pa.) is considered a good fallback around here. Good beer, but not classified as nectar of the gods.

    Here’s a place that’s considered drinking heaven here in Pittsburgh. It’s a British style pub. Guinness is always on along with Wells offerings (are these brews frowned upon over in England too? I’m not exactly sure.) Does this pub actually represent good things in terms of English drinking?

    http://piperspub.com/

    1. Wells Bombardier is right on the borderline: some people think it’s OK, others hate it. Not many people *love* it, though it was quite well thought of twenty years ago.

      The British and Irish beers on that pub’s list are what you’d find in standard, low-end pubs all over the UK — nothing remarkable. Only Young’s Chocolate Stout would get us at all excited. Newcastle Brown has a really bad reputation amongst beer geeks, though Michael Jackson had nice (but qualified) things to say about it.

      1. Don’t get Thornbridge Raven in many low-end pubs that I know.

        Some duffers, but the list looked pretty good to me, at least 10 UK beers I would happily drink, which is 10 more than in most UK pubs.

        The idea that flith like Smithwicks is more expensive than Sierra Nevada is strange to me though.

  10. Prof! Benny McCabe has commissioned a stout from Franciscan Well that is miles better than any of the macros. There should be no call for Murphy’s in any of his pubs.

    This has been a public service announcement on behalf of decent stout.

    1. Indeed.
      MiDaza is superb.
      It is my stout of choice when in the Mutton Lane Inn in Cork.
      What I don’t understand is how the FW manage to make it so much better than its own Shandon Stout ?

  11. Bottle-conditioned Guinness Extra Stout was a wonderful beer. I always thought the draught stuff was a pale imitation and pretty naff.

    Guinness Special Export is still decent.

  12. I was never a fan of Draught Guinness, even back in the 1970′s I found it particularly un-appealing. I didn’t mind Guinness Extra Stout, which was bottle-conditioned back then, but it was always a “stress purchase” – something I drank if nothing else was available.

    I thnk Guinness seriously lost the plot, with their “Extra Cold” version. What a load of nonsense, chilling out what little taste remains in the beer. It was an iconic brand, but it certainly isn’t now. There are far better tasting stouts on the market, and quite frankly Guinness deserves to fade into obscurity if this current offering is the best they can come up with!

  13. It’s cliche to say it but Dublin Guinness is still different to what we get in GB, it’s dark ruby red for a start not this standard black/white beer the ads suggest its still the only place I ever seen a Guinness quality inspection van visiting pubs/bars to make sure it’s served right,how many cask brewers do that in the UK how many even care(they should but that’s another debate)the thing is lots of UK pubs now rave about that system where you pour a can place the glass on a plate and somehow it makes the Guinness taste at least as good as what most UK pubs serve on tap,which either shows the quality of what we’re getting or Nitro/CO2 isn’t the whole story.the Nigerian version is more akin to an old ale I doubt most modern Guinness drinkers would like to be fair

    1. All UK Draught Guinness comes from Dublin in high-gravity form. The Guinness quality control van is the guy who cleans the lines for the pub. You don’t have this for cask beer in the UK because of a thing called “cellarmanship”.

      1. Hmm, I’ve spoken to more than one UK brewer who has resorted to going out and cleaning the lines in pubs to ensure customers get a decent pint! Good cellar skills are certainy not universal in the UK among pubs that stock cask, which I think has been one issue with cask growing as a category. Some of the old family brewers with large tied estates take more care over promoting cellar skills than others — and they’re often the ones whose beers are most highly rated.

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