Beer: Guinness's trick and treat
St. Patrick’s Day is 170 days away as I write this, and store windows are festooned with jack o’lanterns and black cats, not shamrocks and leprechauns. Yet a rare new release from the St. James’s Gate Brewery in Dublin, Ireland, has elbowed its way in among the Oktoberfest and pumpkin beers: Guinness Foreign Extra Stout (FES).
To be precise, the beer is returning to the United States, where it hasn't been sold since before Prohibition. Its ancestry can be traced to 1801, to an export brew called West Indies Porter that was founder Arthur Guinness’s initial attempt to secure a worldwide market.
FES measures 7.5 percent alcohol by volume, considerably more than either Guinness Draft (4.1 percent) or Guinness Extra Stout (5 percent). Unlike the draft, which is impregnated with a carbon dioxide/nitrogen blend that gives it a creamy head of foam, FES contains only CO2. There is no kegged or widget-can version. FES comes in 11.2-ounce bottles (about $10 a four-pack).
The foreign export stout accounts for 45 percent of the company’s volume, says Guinness brand Patrick Hughes. That's an amazingly high percentage for so strong and aggressively flavored a beer. The beer is especially popular in Caribbean and tropical African nations, he says, where you might expect pale light lagers of the Corona or Red Stripe ilk to hold sway. In many of those countries, it’s reconstituted and fermented from an extract manufactured in Ireland, with local grains such as sorghum mixed in. But the United States receives its supply straight from Dublin, Hughes says.
FES is a deep ebony color with a clingy beige head. Uncap the beer and you get a sweet, grainy aroma, like a pot of oatmeal or porridge, albeit one that’s been left on the burner too long. Take a sip and the sweetness gives way to notes of coffee (from roasted, unmalted barley, also a key ingredient in regular Guinness), burnt caramel and licorice, followed by a long, dry, roasty (almost to the point of ashy) finish. “We use more hops in the foreign extra stout than any of our other beers,” Hughes says.
There is also a mild acidity that prevents the beer from becoming cloying and adds a refreshing zing. According to British beer writers Roger Protz and Michael Jackson, Guinness makes the FES by blending fresh beer with an aged stout that’s been soured by wild yeast. (When I asked about blending and souring the beer, Hughes side-stepped the question, confirming only that "the original yeast's descendants are still in the Guinness Foreign Extra Stout we drink today.")
FES is food-friendly; pair it with meats such as chorizo sausage or short ribs, spicy dishes such as jerk chicken or a dark chocolate dessert.
One might ask, why did it take Guinness so long to send us its top-of-the-line stout? Conservatism? American breweries have been experimenting with high-alcohol “imperial” styles for more than 20 years, and it’s not as though it would shock the palates of U.S. craft beer drinkers. FES is one of a handful of brands that has spawned its own stylistic category: Foreign-Style Stout. The niche attracted 33 entries at the recent Great American Beer Festival in Denver. (See a definition of the style here.)
"There is growing interest in craft beer in the U.S. market, especially among consumers who are looking for beer with substance," Hughes says. "We received such a great response when the variant was test-marketed in Atlanta and New York that we felt this fall was an ideal time for the national rollout."
Diageo, the parent corporation of Guinness, also is the world’s leading marketer of spirits, owning such well-known brands as Johnny Walker, Smirnoff, Baileys and Captain Morgan. Increasingly, these hard-liquor brands are outpacing beer as a source of profit.
According to Julie MacIntosh’s forthcoming book "Dethroning the King: The Hostile Takeover of Anheuser-Busch, an American Icon" (Wiley, October 2010), Diageo considered selling Guinness to Anheuser-Busch in 2007 for a 20 to 25 percent stake in the St. Louis brewery.
That appears to be water under the bridge. These days, Guinness is shoring up its domination of the market for dark beer. Currently being test-marketed in Chicago and San Diego, but not yet available locally, is Guinness Black Lager. Its silver-and-blue label proclaims the beer is “Cold Brewed.”
Can that possibly mean cold-fermented? To “brew” beer, you need to heat the barley and hops, just as you need to heat water to brew coffee.
But if the beer is good, I’ll forgive the silly slogan.
-- Greg Kitsock
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