2014 was the year when Craft Beer went mainstream. The big, established brewers finally noticed that their market share was at risk, and started looking for ways to jump on the bandwagon.
Some of them jumped on with both feet, setting up small, in-house microbreweries and letting their brewers off the leash a little. Others looked to buy up established craft breweries as a way of getting their fingers in the pie.
Some rather cynically stuck the word ‘craft’ on their labels and hoped that would work.
Guinness took the ‘in-house craft’ approach, and started experimenting with brewing something different and hopefully more crafty. Digging into their historical records, they came up with two old porter recipes and, with appropriately old-style labels, tried to show that they weren’t a one-trick pony.
Rather than taste them in isolation, I decided to see how these historically-inspired beers stood up to classic Guinness as it currently stands.
As you can see, they’re all seriously dark beers with only a difference in the heads to tell them apart. They are lined up here in strength order, and the head grows darker as the alcohol rises.
On the left is Dublin Porter; the weakest of the trio at 3.8% ABV and based on a recipe from 1796. As well as being the lightest coloured head, it’s also the thinnest and most fleeting. Even the aroma seems watery; there’s a suggestion of sweet molasses but not much else. In the mouth, it’s fizzy, weak and flavourless, with a muddled and rather bitter finish. If this is what passed for porter in 1796, it’s a miracle the brewery made it into the 19th century.
On the right is West Indies Porter; the strongest at 6.0% ABV and marginally more modern, dating from 1801. The tan head has a little more depth but it’s very open and not tremendously long-lived. The aroma is certainly intriguing; a rich, dark honey nose with hints of burnt blackcurrant jam. The honey remains in the flavour, and the bitterness is better controlled but it’s still overly fizzy, a little underflavoured and with a curious metallic edge to it.
Finally, Guinness Original sits in the middle, both physically and strength-wise, at 4.2% ABV. It has the deepest, most fine-texured and fluffiest head and also wins points for being in a more convenient screw-top bottle. The nose is full of oats and black treacle; in the mouth it’s creamy with richly toasted grains and a well balanced bitterness. It may be very mass-market, but it is (if you’ll forgive the term) a well crafted stout.
I’m always in favour of seeing breweries – big or small, new or ancient – trying to do new things, but Guinness seem to have rather missed the point here. They’re known for making one great stout, and with these two beers all they’ve done is produce a pair of lesser stouts that taste like some poor homebrew attempt to clone the original.
And I can’t help feeling they know it. These beers are totally absent from the Guinness website, which seems a smart move.
Stick to the Original, I say. Or try making something that isn’t a stout.
PeteDrinks was sent the two porters to sample. He bought his own Guinness.
i found the West Indies Porter a bit heavy going, a lot of sugar without anything interesting aroma or flavour-wise to back it up. I’ve always liked Guiness Original though, so much nicer than the nitro product. and it’s a good beer to cook with.
Pete, I’m not one to spout the word “iconic;” in fact, it’s so overused it makes me a bit sick. But, really, Guinness IS iconic and, as such, should not be diluting their brand with other products. Not a smart move. Thanks for the tasting notes!
I agree on the porter, it’s a vapid beer with little to recommend it, it gets marginally better on draught but not enough for me to like it. I found the West Indies to be delightful though, thick, rich, heavy and aromatic, it really worked for me and is ace with blue cheese.
A great read! Haven’t tried the two new stouts yet but it’s rarely a success when someone does something just to jump on the bandwagon of whatever is trending at the moment, without having paid intention to the quality ingredients and honed the skill over the years, even generations. I feel jumping in with something new just to be trendy and boost sales without attention to quality simply doesn’t cut it when it comes to people that know their stuff (=beer, or other delicacies).
I’m really interested in everyone’s opinions on whether the backing of a big brewer invalidates the ‘craft’ tag or whether it is the approach that counts more than who is behind it? Like your point about trying new things – this at least feels like it should be applauded. Still needs to be good though!