Guinness Antwerpen, an 8% ABV stout currently on sale in Tesco supermarkets, is very much a step in the right direction.
We bought our bottles there at £2 per 330ml. It is a version of the strong stout Guinness has been exporting to Belgium since 1944, known as Special Export Stout, or SES. Ratebeer treats them as the same beer.
We set about the first one with some expectations of a good time. SES isn’t a beer we know well, or can easily get hold of, so Antwerpen is effectively a new beer to us, and to many others. We’d seen opposing views in throwaway comments on social media — it’s great, it’s awful — but there were some people we trust in the former camp. People who we think are objective and who won’t hold Guinness’s sinister megabrewery status against it.
It is a dense black beer with a milky-coffee-coloured head. The body is similarly chewy and tongue-coating. It tastes rich, exotic and round. Some people might find it sweet but there is also what we perceived as a sour note to take the edge off, bringing to mind cherries and prunes. There is also a bare hint of savoury Marmite adding another layer of interest without intruding. It’s how we remember Ellezeloise Hercule Stout tasting when we drank a lot of it at The Pembury Tavern in Hackney Downs years ago — every so slightly off kilter, faintly funky, without being weird or challenging.
We were sufficiently surprised by just how much we liked it that we went back to the shop to get more bottles the next day. We also took the opportunity to answer a question posed by Steve Lamond of Beers I’ve Known: what does this beer bring to the party that the standard Foreign Extra doesn’t?
Foreign Extra (FES) is the 7.5% beer you see in supermarkets and corner shops at about £1.50-£2 per 330ml. It’s a benchmark for fellow blogger Ed: why spend more on a would-be imperial stout if it’s not better than FES? It’s a beer we drink from time to time and enjoy but not for a while and we recalled something quite different to Antwerpen. So we added a bottle of that to our shopping basket, too.
We tried both beers side by side, one of us pouring so that the other could taste (somewhat, unscientifically) blind. It was immediately obvious that these were different beers. FES is thinner, fizzier, harsher and more metallic. It tastes more like standard Guinness, somehow — rather burnt-sugar bitter, and blunt. But, at the same time, we had forgotten just how good it is and will certainly be making a point of getting some in if (when) the Antwerpen supply dries up.
As for Antwerpen, well, on a second pass, with FES for light and shade, impressed us just as much. It’s just got another dimension to it that lifts it up.
We had one last doubt: what if it was simply the glamour of that extra 0.5% on the ABV that had us fooled? So we diluted samples of each with water, as we learned to do on a gin-tasting tour a few years ago. Antwerpen’s flavour shone through: it tasted like standard Guinness, but better.
No-one is looking at Guinness complaining that they don’t make a decent lager, or pale ale, or saison. This is what people want from them: stout, but better. Not wacky, or adulterated, or overloaded with grassy hops — just better.