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?

    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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