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.