10 February 2011

Our American cousin

Chris was a little bemused when, having offered to bring any beer available in California to Dublin for me, I asked for some Guinness Extra Stout. I make no apology: it's just the way I work. There's a version of Guinness brewed in North America that has often featured in conversations I've had, but I've no idea what it tastes like or how it differs from the Guinness beers brewed in Ireland. That needed putting right, and I'm grateful to Chris and Merideth for providing the opportunity to do so (and for the actual Californian craft beer they brought me out of sympathy and which will feature in a later post).

American Guinness Extra Stout (picture, left) is 6% ABV so I reckoned that the best way to get the measure of it was a parallel tasting with the two strong Guinnesses brewed in Ireland: Foreign Extra (7.5% ABV -- second left) and Special Export (8% ABV -- second right). After the first sip I realised that it would be worth adding Irish Guinness Extra Stout (4.2% ABV -- right) into the mix as well. As an aside, when I went stout shopping in St James's Gate (it's cheapest), I was a little disappointed to find that the gift shop has stopped selling the classic returnable pint bottles, substituting the rather squat and ugly half-litre here depicted.

Back to the Canadian Guinness, then. Much like Foreign Extra and Special Export, the most striking thing about it is a caramel and molasses sweetness. It's a different and lighter sort of vibe though, missing the more full-on liquorice bitterness that balances Foreign Extra. Next to Irish Extra Stout it's a sugar bomb and definitely not fitting the dry Irish stout model. Yet nor is it one of the sweet and chocolatey Irish stouts like O'Hara's: the flavour is more treacle than roasted malt. Only a dry and slightly metallic tang on the end marks its relation to any of Ireland's session stouts.

It sounds like it falls between two stools: neither a punchy export-style stout nor a casual drink-and-forget gulper, and perhaps I'm being unfair by judging it against its brethern rather than on its own merits. The fact is that it is nice to drink. Most craft-brewed versions of the same style would wipe the floor with it, but as an accessible beer with a bit of -- but not too much -- character it works well. Much like the bottled Guinness Extra Stout sold in Dublin, I'd say it's a useful fall-back when there's nothing better available.


  1. Really enjoyed reading this, I love Guinness foreign extra so was great to read the comparisons.

    I haven't tried the Belgian version yet but strangely enough my favourite FES so far is the Nigerian version. It shouldn't taste nice, I mean it's made from a dehydrated hopped wort that is blended with a nigerian beer made with sorghum. BUT it's fantastic, sweet, fruity, very hoppy. I regularly pick up a few bottles when I go down to london as lots of the specialist stores sell them. They look identical to the Irish Foreign Extra, except for a small red 'Imported' tab at the bottom of the front label, and obviously the details on the back which say brewed by Guinness Nigeria.

    I've got a few bottles in the beer cupboard if you fancy a swapsies as well.

  2. Cheers Neil.

    The Nigerian version is, apparently, available here in some of the African food shops but I've not bothered to go and seek it out. I really should.

  3. I enjoy the occasional Extra Stout, as you say it is a decent fall back beer, like Sam Adams Boston Lager has become for me. When I had the Foreign Extra Stout, I was underwhelmed to be honest, though I had had a few beer prior, so perhaps it needs a re-visit with a cleaner palate?

  4. Thanks for this; I've always wanted to do a side-by-side comparison of the variants. I used to get the "blue capped" pint bottles from my sister who used to work in Guinness. I saw the Nigerian version in Redmonds a few years back; it was very expensive! I like the Special Export, FES and reg'lur bottled Guinness in that order. As you say; bottled Guinness is a good fallback when available and all the better "from the shelf" (as in The Patriot's Inn, Kilmainham)

  5. A surprising number of Dublin pubs still do a large bottle off the shelf, if you ask for it.

    I really hope that the change to 50cl non-returnables in the James's Gate giftshop isn't a sign that the pint bottle is being discontinued.

  6. As beer nut mentions, you can pick the Nigerian FES up in african and other ethnic shops. I pay between £1.49 and £1.69 for a 330ml bottle, thats in the Housnlow area of London. Not bad at all for a 7.5% ABV beer.

    It's a really unusual beer, very different to the Irish version which tastes more aged. The Nigerian has a molasses sweetness and a real fruity character, plus a few unidentifiable, but pleasant, flavours possibly created by the local ingredients used. It shouldnt work, but it does.

  7. Oh, and if anyone's interested, my review of the 6.5% ABV Jamaican FES is here.

  8. We can do the Red Ale project next... I can bring you Smithwick's and Killian's Irish Red...

  9. American Smithwick's is tempting. I've done Killian's Red, though, in very similar circumstances. A visitor coming from Maine asked what I wanted, I said Killian's Red, and she brought me that plus some sympathy Allagash dubbel.

    It was just before I started the blog so there's no record of it, but let's just say that I don't think I need reminding of what Killian's is like.

  10. Do you happen to know if American Guinness is brewed in Canada for sure? I tried finding something definitive on the internet but only got conflicting stories and nothing concrete. Guinness seems to want us to think that beer for the American, UK, and Irish markets all come from St James Gate, but obviously they do brew some in Canada. Even read that only beer in the US east of the Mississippi river comes from SJG.

    I should have picked up some Foreign Extra when I was at the store house. I foolishly thought it was the same as US Extra Stout with a different name.

  11. Well, the first things to remember are there's no beer called "Guinness", nor any company of that name.

    The American Guinness Extra Stout is brewed by AB-InBev in Ontario. America's supply of Draught Guinness comes from Diageo's plant at St James's Gate -- presumably in high-gravity form for dilution and kegging closer to the market.

  12. Thanks for the clarification. I guess Guinness is a "brand" these days rather than an independent company. I use it as a blanket term, which may not be the most accurate.

    If you're getting any of this info from a reliable online source, I'd be very happy to look at it. There seems to be tons of misinformation out there about all things relating to Guinness/Diageo/etc

  13. Nice post.

    Last time i was in dublin and did the St James Gate tour i recall a giant map with led lights for each brewing location. I remember seeing the USA didn't have one, but Canada and Mexico did.....

    Any Mexican Guiness making it into the US Market?

  14. FoA: that the North American Extra Stout comes from the Labatt brewery is just one of those things that Everybody Knows: it's been that way for a long time. Check the label, I think it does say it's brewed in Canada. That all US draught Guinness comes from Dublin is from their own website. I think that may be a relatively new arrangement.

    Ed: no idea.

  15. Cheers, BN. I found myself wondering about the Labatt connection when I repeated it to someone and realized that I didn't know for sure if it was true, and the fact the Diageo is a dubious source of info on the other had me questioning. Reading too much Zythophile, I suppose. :)

  16. Anonymous12:16 am

    Reading too much Zythophile, I suppose. :)

    You can never read too much Zythophile.

  17. To add more confusion to this, I recently noticed bottles of Guinness Foreign Extra in my bottle shop. I don't imagine you're still thinking about this, but I shall endeavour to find out where that particular oddity actually comes from.

  18. I understand that's a recent import into the US and is from Dublin - second left on the picture above. It's worth drinking.

  19. That's good to hear. I'll get to make up for missing out on it. I think I'll stock up on some as well, because this seems exactly like the kind of beer that won't last on the American market.

  20. The Guinness Extra Stout sold in the US, brewed in Canada can come from either Labatt or Moosehead (the latter distinguished by "New Brunswick" as the brewery site on the label). In some cases, it may be regional, others it's the size of the bottle.

    Up until the late 1990's, the US got Irish-brewed GES, and for a time the 11.2 oz. bottles were Canadian, while the 24 oz'ers were still from Ireland.

    The Canadian market has had the Labatt brewed 5% GES for several decades (1960's IIRC), but the stuff sold in the US does not list ABV (optional in the US in most states), so it's unclear if it's the same product or not. I've seen it listed as being 6%, 5.5% and 5% in the US over the years from various sources.

    Some examples of US labels can be seen at https://sites.google.com/site/jesskidden/guinnessinamerica2

    The various Diageo-Guinness websites are often deceptive or just inaccurate when it comes to info on the beers sold in a particular country. For the US, they don't mention the Canadian origin of GES and state that all GUINNESS for North America comes from SJG- when questioned about it, they'll claim they mean all "Guinness Draught".

  21. Wow. Thanks Jess.

    Any wonder there's so much contradictory information on the web about the brand. It's almost surprising that the Big Global Corporation doesn't give each version its own name rather than having the brand so confused.

  22. Anonymous11:24 pm

    I am in the US and drink the regular Extra Stout that comes from Canada from time to time. I was curious about the alcohol content too, so I shot an e-mail to them and they told me it was 6%. I hear the kind that is actually distributed in Canada is different from what we get here(it is still brewed in Canada, but by a different brewer and is 5% rather than 6%)

  23. Anonymous11:29 pm

    Also, I tried the Foreign ES that recently made it to the US and it is pretty good stuff. I wish it was a little more bitter though like the regular Extra Stout they sell here in the US. I might pick up a 4 pack later now that I'm thinking about it.

  24. Here in Minneapolis, they've recently switched out the Nova Scotia brewed GES for a weaker version from Dublin. Sweeter or not, I really enjoyed the Canadian version, and don't like the Irish one as much. Plus it's disappointing paying the same for a weaker version in a smaller bottle that sometimes tastes skunky..

    Is the Nova Scotia version still available elsewhere?

    1. Yes, that must be quite a come-down: they're very different beers, despite sharing a name. As far as I know the 6% Extra Stout brewed in Canada is still in production, but you'd need to ask an American where it's currently being distributed.