Zak Avery: Guinness is an icon for a reason
Monday 28 June 2010
Surely there can't be a more iconic beer in the world than draught Guinness? A pint of the black stuff, topped with its trademark creamy white nitrogenated head, has graced our bars for over half a century. The beer used to be served in the same manner as all other beers, originally from cask, then moving to carbon dioxide pressure, before the introduction of nitrogen to the mix. Nitrogen gives Guinness its fine, creamy texture, and means that the beer is perceived as being less gassy and smoother by the drinker.
And it's an icon for a reason. Not only does it look great, but it tastes pretty good too. The smooth creamy stout, shot through with soft coffee flavours and finishing pleasantly dry and slightly earthy, is a good standby pint for many beer aficionados who find themselves in a pub with a less-than-ideal beer selection. If you've never tried it, you'll be surprised to learn that it's nowhere near as full-flavoured as it looks, and if you've ever enjoyed coffee or dark chocolate, then you have a palate equipped to enjoy any stout, Guinness included.
And the draught product is just the start. There are two other variants that are a little harder to find, but perhaps more indicative of how Guinness got its reputation as being a full-bodied, grown-up's drink. Guinness Foreign Extra (7.5%abv) and Special Export (8%abv) are both full-bodied and rich, with a pronounced espresso-like bitterness and some grassy hop character in the finish. If, as has been suggested in some quarters, Guinness has become blander in recent recent years, then perhaps these are much more representative of the full-bodied Guinness of times past.
So why would such an icon appear to be losing its foothold in the market? There's no doubt that, as a nation, our drinking habits have changed radically over the last decade. There has been a trend towards sweeter drinks, both with so-called alcopops (correctly called RTDs, 'ready to drink'), and wholesale revitalisation of the cider category, simply by suggesting it be served over ice. While it's easy to recruit new drinker to sweeter drinks, it's another thing to recruit them to something that looks like it will taste like the darkest corner of an old man's beer cellar.
Real ale has also made inroads into the market, and as a category is now in better shape than it has ever been, both in terms of volume sold and variety of styles and flavours available – truly, there is an ale for every palate and every occasion. Add to this the increase in drinking at home, and the fact that growth in premium bottled beers is greater than in any other segment in the brewing industry. But worse of all, maybe Guinness has simply succumbed to the sort of fate that eventually befalls all icons; ubiquity, familiarity, and contempt. Perhaps the famous two minute, two-stage pour needs updating; Guinness slushie, anyone?
Zak Avery is a beer blogger, a former winner of the British Guild of Beer Writers' Writer of the Year, and author of "500 Beers", Apple Press
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