Every week in The Man Who Invented beer, Adam Cowden runs down what you should be drinking, and tosses in some history for good measure.
It’s Wednesday, March 13: four days away from the day that, for Irish and non-Irish drunkards alike, is better than Christmas. Is Guinness a craft beer? No, not technically. Is Guinness the best beer in the universe? Well, we can’t be sure; according to physicists, the universe (or multi-verse) is likely so big that it contains all mathematically possible permutations, meaning that somewhere out in unfathomable expanse of the cosmos, there may be a beer superior to Guinness. In terms of brew that you can enjoy this St. Paddy’s day, however, it just doesn’t get better than an old pint o’ plain.
What’s the story?
On the final day of the year 1759, Arthur Guinness signed a 9,000 year lease on a small, dilapidated brewery at St. James Gate in Dublin. Yes, 9,000 years, for an annual rent of £45. The brewery site at St. James’s Gate has since expanded far beyond its original size (from 4 to 50 acres), and the nine-millennium lease has since been superseded, but you can go see Arthur Guinness’s signature on the famously zealous contract on show at the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin to this very day.
Prior to 1759, Arthur had brewed ale at a small brewery in Country Kildare. The suffering state of the Dublin brewing industry (due to heavy taxation designed to favor English-produced beer) made his decision to leave his former brewing operation to his brother and confidently sign a 9,000 year lease at St. James’s Gate all the more surprising. Arthur Guinness was a determined and enterprising spirit, however, and an unfriendly tax-structure was just one of many streams he had to help his fledgling company company ford in its early years. When the Dublin Corporation tried to cut off his water supply in 1775, Arthur was forced to brandish a pickaxe and “much improper language” to defend what his original lease had guaranteed free for 9,000 years.
In the early years, Arthur brewed “Guinness Dublin Ale” at St. James’s Gate. By the 1770’s, however, a new, dark beer imported from London called porter was surpassing ale in popularity, and Arthur decided to try his hand at this style. This proved to be a good choice; by 1794, his recipe was popular enough to inspire an engraving in London magazine “The Gentleman’s Choice” of a man drinking Guinness Porter. In 1799, shortly before his death in 1803, Arthur made the fateful decision to stop brewing Dublin Ale and focus exclusively on porter. In the century to follow, the popularity of Guinness’ dark beer would surpass that of all other competitors, would help Dublin would overthrow London as the porter capital of the world, and would spawn a beer style unto itself called stout.
The Guinness Draught you’re probably familiar with, the one served in Irish pubs around the world today, did not really take shape until the 20th century. Around the 1930s, Guinness began shifting away from the use of black patent malt to actual roasted barley, and in the 1950’s pioneered the use of taps that carbonated beer with a mixture of nitrogen and carbon dioxide in response to complaints that the new keg-carbonated beer was not as smooth as the old cask-conditioned variety. Guinness Draught officially made its debut in 1959, 200 years after Arthur signed his 9,000 year lease at St. James’s Gate.
Why should I drink it?
Where to begin…
In February 6, 1929, the first ever Guinness newspaper advertisement appeared in the Daily Mail. The advert featured a simple tagline that would soon become one of the Guinness brand’s most enduring legacies: “Guinness is good for you.” If you’ve ever been to a bar or pub with an “O’’ and an apostrophe preceding the rest of the name, you’ve probably seen this message endorsed by toucans, sea lions, and burly working-class men on colorful Guinness posters. Reportedly, the slogan was born when the SH Benson, the advertising agency charged with creating the campaign, asked pub regulars why they were drinking Guinness. “Nine times out of ten,” says Guinness archivist Eibhlin Roche, “the answer back was ‘Guinness is good for you.’” This wasn’t just brazen, drunk bravado, either; around this time, Guinness was prescribed to post-operative patients and nursing mothers due to its high iron content and “nourishing properties.”
As mandated by Irish law (as well as other countries to which the brew is distributed), Guinness is no longer allowed to make such claims, but recent studies suggest that they may have actually been on to something. Researches from the University of Wisconsin recently presented findings to the American Heart Association that suggest that Guinness, in moderate amounts, can help prevent heart clotting and cholesterol depositing on artery walls. These benefits are not found in other alcoholic beverages, and research attributes them to “antioxidant properties” derived from the roasted malt used to brew Guinness, similar to properties present in other dark foods such as blueberries. Diageo, the conglomerate that now owns Guinness, “never makes any medical claims” for their drinks, but stacked up against their other offerings, Guinness looks pretty good. Bailey’s Irish Cream, another Diageo Brand, packs an astounding 327 calories per 100ml. Any guesses as to how many calories are in the same amount of Guinness? If you guessed somewhere around 10 times less, you were right; at a paltry 30 calories per 100ml, Guinness is in fact lighter than orange juice, skim milk, and several supposedly “light” beers. Guinness’ rich and full-bodied taste have earned it a reputation as a “meal in a glass,” but amazingly, a full pint weights in under 200 cal.
Yes, Guinness is good to those who drink it, but over its long history, it has been ever better to those who couldn’t afford it. Arthur Guinness was markedly influenced by John Wesley, who urged his followers to “Earn all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can,” and left behind an impressive philanthropic legacy. Arthur founded some of Ireland’s first Sunday schools, donated a then-impressive 250 guineas to St. Patrick Cathedral’s Chapel schools, served as governor of Meath Hospital, and was an actively member of The Friendly Brothers of St. Patrick, an anti-dueling club. The heirs to Arthur’s throne seem to have inherited these same values. In 1876, Guinness instituted a pension and healthcare scheme unprecedented in Ireland, and by 1928, Guinness employees could enjoy on-site medical and dental care, massage therapy, gymnasiums, athletic leagues, libraries, academic scholarships for their children, yearly paid vacations, and two free pints of the world’s most nourishing beer every day. Edward Cecil, great-grandson to Arthur Guinness, was perhaps the most charitable leader at the Guinness helm; in 1890, he established the Guinness and Iveagh trust funds to provide housing for Dublin and London’s poor, and made large contributions to the Trinity College and Dublin hospitals. Allegedly, one Guinness heir was so dedicated to the plight of Ireland’s poor that he moved his new bride into a Dublin after receiving a five-million pound wedding gift.
The Guinness history is full of incredible tales like this, but the stories of Guinness during wartime are perhaps the most inspiring Nowadays, it’s pretty common for companies to tie a yellow ribbon around their product and run an ad or two that says “Hey, thanks troops!” If this kind of shameless wartime profiteering makes you nauseous, it might do your heart good to hear the story of one of the few companies in history that not only claimed to support the troops, but actually did so. During War I, Guinness told every employee that went off to fight not to trash their work uniform; when they returned, their old jobs would be waiting. They also paid the families of these employees half of their normal salaries while they were away. At the outset of WWII, Guinness made a promise to every British soldier that come time for Christmas dinner, each of them would receive a little taste of home. Guinness operated its brewery around the clock in an attempt to make good on their promise, but soon found that they had a huge problem. Too many of its staff were away at war, and they were simply too short handed to meet the order. When word of this started to spread, something began to happen that can only be described as a real-life Christmas miracle. In an unprecedented display of badassery, retired Guinness workers began to show up to help out with the cause. Not wanting to be left out, other breweries began sending their workers to help as well, and on Christmas Day 1939, every soldier had his pint.
I could go on to recount the story of how Guinness helped create modern statistics, or how they won a 1991 Queen’s Award for Technological Achievement for the invention of the nitrogen dispensing “widget,” or how they created the authoritative source on world records, but why waste the time reading that when you could just go get one now…
What does it taste like?
Well, that depends…
Let’s start with Guinness Draught, the Guinness that you’ll more than likely be enjoying. Smooth, creamy, and dry, it’s absolutely the pinnacle of session beers. Beer snobs will often complain that Guinness Draught tastes thin, and that it’s basically a watered down shadow of the real Guinness from the 19th century. Aside from the obvious question, which is to ask how one could possibly know what Guinness tasted like in the 19th century, I always want to challenge these people to name one other beer as light, drinkable, and still flavorful as Guinness Draught. Yes, it’s lighter and less alcoholic than it used to be, but drinking habits have changed. Back in the 19th century when beer was a safer alternative to water, people were probably better equipped to tolerate 7% ABV Guinness, but personally, I’m glad that it has declined a cool 4.2% because that means I can enjoy more of it!
The aforementioned adjectives smooth, creamy, and dry are the three words that I hear used most consistently to describe Guinness Draught. Smooth almost certainly refers to the beer’s high drinkability and light body (that’s just a fancy a way of saying there’s no startling or overpowering tastes). Creamy refers to the effect of the nitro-carbonation, which creates a white, creamy, almost milkshake-like head and a silk-like consistency that causes the beer to just slide down your throat. Dry refers to the roasted bitterness that dominates the flavor, especially the aftertaste, lending it what is often described as a “dry finish” and helping define the style of beer known as “Dry Irish Stout.” This may not be my grandfather’s Guinness, but it’s the Guinness that I’ve grown up with, and it’s my beer of choice, period. There’s absolutely no other beer that better fosters celebration; it tastes great, goes down easy, and never leaves you bored, dissatisfied, or too drunk too to have another (well, almost never).
For those looking for something a little stronger and closer in taste to the original, there’s Guinness Extra Stout, also known as Guinness Original in Ireland. Supposedly, there’s some slight differences between the two, as the Guinness Extra Stout available in the U.S. is brewed in Canada and has an ABV of 5%, while the Guinness Original available in Europe is brewed in Ireland and has an alcohol content similar to Guinness Draught. Regardless, this variety is probably closest in character to the brew endorsed by the toucan in the famous “Guinness is Good for You” posters and closest to the recipe for Guinness Extra Superior Porter as recorded by Arthur Guinness II in 1821. Unlike Guinness Draught, Guinness Extra Stout is carbonated with no nitrogen. This gives it a noticeably sharper bite and allows the all of the flavors (the sweet, bitter, and roasted) to bleed through more prominently. The bubbly, tan head also differs from the creamy, white mass that sits on top of a Guinness Draught, and there’s a little bit of spiciness that’s not present in the draught. Overall, the main difference between the two is that Guinness Extra Stout, though lacking the silky smoothness of it’s draught counterpart, packs a slightly heavier, more flavorful punch, though the flavor is basically the same.
And finally, Guinness Foreign Extra Stout. Supposedly, this is the beer most similar in character to dark porter that put Arthur Guinness’ company on the map, and is a direct descendant of the Guinness West India Porter that first hit the scene in 1801. It’s also the variety of Guinness that consistently garners the highest rating from beer aficionados; its near perfect ratings on Beer Advocate and Rate Beer put it in the elusive “world-class” category. I’ll warn you, however: this is not a beer for the faint of heart. I had it once while I was in Africa, and to be completely honest, I didn’t like it. In preparation for this review, I had another, and this time…I loved it. The intervening years have given my tastebuds some time to develop beyond a taste for Natty Light. Brewed with extra hops, more roasted barley, and a higher alcohol content (all features originally designed to act as preservatives in the long voyage overseas), it’s a strong, complex, full bodied beer capable of knocking you on your ass. Like Guinness Extra Stout, the simple carbonation (no nitrogen) does nothing to mask dominant roasted flavor and allows some of the more subtle flavors to shine through. People everywhere else in the world love it (three of the five Guinness breweries worldwide are located in Africa, and Foreign Export Stout accounts for about half of Guinness’s global sales), so if you’re feeling adventurous, give it a go.
As a final note, I want to address the oft-repeated claim that the Guinness we drink over here is incomparable to the Guinness poured in Ireland. While it’s simply untrue that “Guinness in the States tastes nothing like Guinness in Ireland” or that “Guinness is 1,000,000 times better across the pond,” I can honestly say that it does taste better and better the closer you get to the source. Guinness claims that all Guinness Draught served in the U.S. is imported from Ireland, so you can rest assured that the ingredients and process are the same. Personally, I think it’s a matter of a) freshness and b) the fact that Irish/British pubs have virtually perfected the art of storing and pouring Guinness. Needless to say, if you’re ever in Ireland and pass up the opportunity to enjoy a “perfect pint,” you’re an idiot.
Should I try it?
Occasionally, you’ll bump into an insufferable know-it-all who will tell you, “Irish people don’t even drink Guinness. In fact, they don’t even celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. That’s an American thing.” Let me assure you: these people have no idea what they’re talking about. They probably aren’t even Irish, and as for those that are…well, they probably left for a reason. Yes, the St. Patrick’s day we know today (complete with hordes of drunk Catholics parading through the streets, leprechaun hats, and green everything) was largely an invention of Irish-American immigrants, but keep the feast of St. Patrick was celebrated by Irish Europeans as early as the ninth century, and became a public holiday in Ireland over a hundred years ago (sadly, we are still forced to go to work drunk). Having visited Dublin on St. Patrick’s day, I can report that yes, the Irish enjoy an excuse to drink first thing in the morning just as much we do, and yes, they prefer to celebrate with Guinness. So if you choose to imbibe this St. Patrick’s Day, join the Irish in raising a glass (or 20) of the black stuff, and to those who don’t…well, to them you can join the Irish in saying “Póg mo thóin!