Beer Nuts

Guinness’s Legend Is Stout, But Craft Brews Challenge That Fame

By JEFF LINKOUS | Mar 14, 2018

I’m not one for nostalgia. My tastes in music and “Seinfeld” repeats keep me trapped in the past as it is. I don’t need any extra help to bottle me up in a single decade. But with St. Patrick’s Day approaching, the itch to revisit a beer from my past, a beer I had moved on from long ago, was hard to ignore. And when the impulse to grab a four-pack of Guinness Draught hit me, I decided to turn it a into research project: Does anyone else share my gripe about Guinness?

The short answer is yes. In the craft beer era – with its abundant choices and flavors – Guinness Draught, the classic Irish dry stout, comes up a little short, thin in body and somewhat watery.

To be fair, it’s not Guinness’s fault. It’s a palate shift kind of thing that makes Guinness a brew that beer enthusiasts could – and do – leave behind. And to give Guinness its due props, it’s been the gateway for a lot of people trying stout and discovering the appealing balance of dark malts, hops and silkiness that the brews can have.

Craft brewing has embraced bigger (higher alcohol content) and hoppier beers for a while now, and stouts have likewise trended toward designer versions (think whiskey barrel-aged) that are quite robust and imperial (again, high alcohol), or given the Belgian yeast treatment for some really lively flavors. At 4.3 percent alcohol by volume and a rather neutral hop profile, Guinness Draught falls outside those trend lines.

But tasting beer is subjective, and when you’re having beers, you need to know your limit. Mine was whether what I now tasted in Guinness, and the fault lines I noticed, were something others shared, or just something idiosyncratic. Again, the answer is it’s not just me.

Some background. Once upon a time, Guinness Draught was a reliable go-to beer for me, and I certainly had a lot of it back in the 1990s and early 2000s. Outside of brewpub versions of Irish dry stouts, Guinness was my definition of stout. But a lot of the craft beer experience is about trying what’s new, and that’s where Guinness’ grip nowadays begins to slip.

With that in mind, I supplied co-workers and fellow beer enthusiasts Jeff Kuhlman and Jason Cascais each with a can of Guinness Draught, the classic dry stout; a bottle of Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, a richer and higher ABV stout; and a can of Murphy’s, another classic Irish dry stout, and once upon a time a prime competitor to Guinness. (I purposely kept craft stouts out of the sampling mix, to make it more of head-to-head comparison.)

The protocol was simple: Drink the beer and relay your impressions. Jason still has to turn in his Murphy’s homework, but enough results from the comparisons are in. The order of finish: Guinness Foreign Extra – roasty, full-bodied and pleasing; Murphy’s – suitable body, flavorful enough; and Guinness Draught – watery, not like we remembered it. The consensus is all of the crafts we’ve partaken of over the years have slapped the reset button and left Guinness Draught standing at the train platform.

In fairness to Guinness, the same thing has happened to a lot of other beers that were pioneering to beer palates. Samuel Adams Boston Lager is an obvious parallel, but I can reasonably say I’ve moved on from Victory Brewing’s Prima Pils and a smattering of Sierra Nevada and Lagunitas’s portfolios. (I’m sure there are others.)

No wake zone. This shouldn’t be a wake for Guinness Draught. It’s still a worthy beer, and will remain a touchstone for folks just getting to beer. As a brand, Guinness is legendary for its longevity, not to mention popular culture contributions, such as the zoo animals – lions, ostriches, toucans and seals – that parade through the classic advertising posters (nowadays on T-shirts) by 1920s-’30s illustrator John Gilroy. Gilroy’s work no doubt still inspires craft beer label artists.

By all means, have a Guinness on St. Patrick’s Day. But remember, that’s just a start.

The local scene. Here’s what’s happening at Southern Ocean County’s craft breweries for St. Patrick’s Day:

Ship Bottom Brewery, makers of oatmeal and Mexican stouts, will feature a 5.0 percent ABV milk stout on nitrogen tap, among other specials in its brewery taproom in Bay Village in Beach Haven.

Pinelands Brewing in Little Egg Harbor will observe St. Paddy’s Day with its coffee milk stout finished off with chocolate and peppermint, plus an IPA tinted green with food coloring.

ManaFirkin Brewing is going green, too, but taking a different path and different beer: 100 ounces of wheatgrass juice from Stafford Township neighbors The Schwee Tea Co. added to a Czech pilsner. Also look for the brewery’s flagship porter, coffee stout and brown ale.

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