The only reason I started drinking was because of peer pressure from my mate Nick. I stayed at university for an extra year to do a masters and he had another year of his engineering degree to go and. Early on, the full horror dawned on him: “I can’t believe I’m stuck in this miserable city with only a teetotaller for company.”
I started drinking to keep him company and soon learned that Nick had a set of rules about pubs and beer:
1. Pubs should be dark brown up to waist height and nicotine brown above.
2. Red Stripe is the go-to beer for most situations, but especially nightclubs and picnics.
3. Beck’s tastes of blood.
4. Stella gives you headaches because it is “dirty”.
5. No-one likes Guinness, but you have to drink it on Sunday lunchtime — “It’s a rule.”
Having only been drinking for about two months, I remember vividly being bullied into getting a pint of Guinness and taking two hours to drink it. It only got worse as, sitting next to a roaring fire, it got warmer and warmer. I’d never tasted anything so bitter or so vile.
I was not reassured by Nick’s Sixth Law:
6. Guinness makes you shit treacle.
These days, of course, Nick is himself teetotal, and I’ve got way more rules about beer and pubs than he ever did.
When we host a party, we’re always delighted to open the door and have a plastic bag thrust at us: “We know you like beer so we brought a few interesting things we picked up.”
We have a very vivid memory of the end of a party some time in around 2005. Everyone had gone and music was playing into an empty front room strewn with empty beer cans and paper plates. We slumped onto the sofa, slightly exhausted and a little tipsy, and decided to split one more beer before tidying up. We reached for a bag of beers a friend had brought, harvested from the corner shops of Walthamstow.
The bottle that came to hand was Dublin-brewed Guinness Foreign Extra Stout. Being snotty about Guinness, we didn’t expect much except a nastier, boozier version of the stout we occasionally drank in an emergency in the pub.
The aroma, like smelling salts, snapped us out of our post-party drowsing: jaded as were our palates, it poked its way through. It tasted, we both agreed, like a delicious pudding. (We were enjoying, not taking notes, so that’s where the insight ended.)
Why do we remember this particular moment so vividly? Perhaps because of the shock of having our prejudices overturned.
Last week, we tasted four strong stouts from our local cornershop.
We know Guinness Foreign Extra is good and wanted to see how the others on the market compared.
So, we got a bottles of:
Dublin-made Guinness FES (7.5%)
Nigerian-made Guinness FES (7.5%)
Dragon Stout (7.5% )
Lion Heart Stout. (7.6% )
To save you reading too much more, Dragon and Lion Heart were pretty horrid, both lying somewhere between cola and tramp’s brew. Neither had much body, both were fizzy, and both tasted overwhelmingly of caramel. Lion Heart boasts that it’s made with “the finest pilsner malt”, but that certainly didn’t come through. And here’s a choice quote from the Big City Brewing Company’s Lion Heart Stout web-page:
Lion Heart Stout makes the men Roar and ladies Purrr. 100 percent Jamaican stout which, being true to its brewing heritage, is smoother in taste, stronger in body and flavour and not too bitter providing the drinker with the increased ability for excitement, power, tenacity and vigor in the pursuit of life’s pleasures.
Hmmm. It’s like Viagra, then? Don’t think you’d get away with that in the UK.
We poured most of these two away.
Dublin FES was as good as we remembered, so it was only the Nigerian-made version that offered any hope of a taste revelation. We drank them side-by-side and noted a creamier, lighter head on the Irish version. The Nigerian version is much sweeter, but not overwhelmingly so, and certainly miles ahead of Dragon. It’s grainy and burnt tasting, with a lot of bitterness at the end to balance things out. Boak liked it; Bailey wasn’t so impressed.
Those in the know say that Belgian version of Guinness (“Special Export Stout”) is best. We think we’ve had it before, but are not sure. It would have been good to try it alongside the others.