Guinness, But Better

Two stouts, side by side, in stem glasses.

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.

6 thoughts on “Guinness, But Better”

  1. The Antwer­pen tast­ed a lot like the Windies porter to me. It’s fine, expect­ed a bit more from it. Not sure what.

  2. Had it last night, liked it a lot – smoother than your aver­age stout but more com­plex as well. (Where­as the milk stout – which I had last week – does­n’t linger in my mem­o­ry at all; good but no more than that.) Bang­ing head this morn­ing, though.

  3. As a fre­quent vis­i­tor to Bel­gium I’ve been a fan for many years. I’m inter­est­ed in your com­par­i­son with Her­cule Stout. I’m not a huge fan of stouts but Guin­ness SES and Her­cule are 2 of my favourite beers. The Antwer­pen stout is now list­ed in Tesco so should be easy to find. Fur­ther­more, on a recent vis­it to De Garre in Bruges it was avail­able on draught which I’ve not known pre­vi­ous­ly. Dan­ger­ous­ly drink­able it was too.

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