24 November 2014

Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not

I can't help but feel that Diageo have fashioned a rod for their own backs with The Brewers Project. It's easy to read it as promising things that it was never really intended to deliver, and that's just going to annoy people.

My experience of it began back in early September when the company invited a small group of bloggy types to St. James's Gate to learn about the Project, the first time they have ever done so. As everyone is doubtless aware at this stage the Project has been launched with two new beers: Guinness Dublin Porter and Guinness West Indies Porter. In answer to my obvious  "Why now?" question, Nick the Innovation Marketing Manager, leading the group, said that the rise in diversity on the Irish beer scene had not gone unnoticed at Diageo. They saw it as an opportunity to play a little, to try something that wouldn't have worked before but could be worth a go. Those of us still lamenting the premature death of the St. James's Gate beers know all about Guinness projects that were tragically ahead of their time.

There are two principal features of the new venture, explained to us when we left the plush surrounds of the Director's Dining Room and donned our protective goggles for entering the pilot brewery: one is that the pilot plant itself plays a central role in creating the beers; the second is that the Guinness archive is also pivotal, providing inspiration for the brewers designing the beers. These are the messages we see again and again in the marketing surrounding the new products: brewers given freedom to create, and a taste of authentic history. The problem is that both concepts are paper thin and disintegrate disappointingly after a mere moment's scrutiny.

Let's take the historical side of things first. An archivist was on hand to show us the logs which were directly relevant to the two new beers, or rather, how they're marketed. One log was from 1796, the earliest to show porter being brewed by Guinness. The other was dated 1801, when Guinness began brewing porter for export, a recipe which evolved into today's Foreign Extra Stout. Gearóid, one of the brewers gathered round  with us, pointed to the figures for hopping, saying that they were much higher than you'd have today. I've read enough Ron to know that's par for the course, but also that no 1796 porter would be anywhere near as weak as the 3.8% ABV of the new one. So what gives? It's an influence on the recipes, say the men from Diageo, an inspiration. But where did the basic specs come from, the original gravity and so on? Oh they were just handed down from above, same as every beer. These porters conform rigidly to modern Guinness ingredients and methods.

I'm not having a go at Diageo for not making Pattinsonian clones of beers in their logs. They are entitled to make what they like. I do, however, think presenting them as any way historically associated was a mistake -- something that will mislead most customers and just irritate the ones who look a bit further into it.

It's all neatly illustrated by the posters which began to appear a couple of weeks ago, ahead of the launch of the beers in Ireland. Try Our New Beer From 1796 / 1801 they exclaim. You have to look at your feet to spot the small print:
That's a lot less fun and I wonder what the point of the whole thing is. A beer that sort-of has some influences from an older one isn't a thrilling window into the past, but nor is it an exciting new recipe. It looks like a brewery wanting my attention but offering nothing to hold it.

The 10hL brewhouse
And then there's the pilot brewery itself. You'll have noticed it on your way along James's Street, its delivery shutter two storeys up the wall on the outside. There are a pair of brewhouses inside: a one hectolitre, fanciest-homebrew-kit-you've-ever-seen, and a ten hectolitre kit, originally installed in the late 1990s to brew the "St. James's Gate" range of proto-craft beers but still very shiny and well looked after. It could be the brewery of any small-to-medium microbrewery, except there's a cereal cooker at the start for adjuncts, and a pasteuriser at the end: St. James's Gate is a totally sterile plant, no beer leaves alive, not even the made-for-destruction test batches.

It's the only pilot brewery in the globe-spanning Diageo empire and it has the job of testing all the ingredients that arrive, be it a new crop of sorghum for use in Nigeria or a fresh batch of foam stabiliser from Kerry. One of the FVs was marked as containing a test run of Tusker, several had the last runs from the former Smithwick's brewery in Kilkenny inside.

The pilot also does recipe development. Every Diageo beer starts life on the small kit, then gets reproduced on the 10hL one. If successful, an Irish recipe graduates to the brand new main brewhouse where Guinness stout comes through 1,000hL at a time, though half-sized batches are often done for other beers and, Gearóid says, they can bring the quantity down to 350hL if they absolutely need to. And the new beers are no exception: both were scaled up through the pilot brewery but the beer you drink came from the industrial-sized facility.

The 1hL brewhouse
I've seen several references to The Brewers Project as "craft beer", or an attempt thereat, by the makers of Guinness. Everyone I met inside St. James's Gate denied that this is what it's supposed to be, and I completely believe them that their intention isn't to fake small-batch, artisan Guinness. But they can't possibly not have noticed that, with all the mention of the pilot kit and the men who work there, and the emphasis on the human input into the product design while totally ignoring the economic aspect, that "craft Guinness" was a perception bound to result. And again that anyone who saw the details of what's actually happening would be disappointed.

Eleven paragraphs on a brewery's marketing is not how I roll normally. But The Brewers Project fascinates me, albeit in a slightly morbid way. That said, the opportunity to look into the Diageo brewing process and see a whole new yet familiar side of brewing is something I'm hugely grateful for -- a big thanks to Julie and Ruth from WHPR for masterminding the event, and the Diageo team for showing us round. I'm hoping it's the beginning of a new era of glasnost initiated by the taciturn Dublin 8 monolith.

We did get a small taster of the two beers when we visited. My first impression of both was that they're very similar to existing Guinness products: Dublin Porter thin and crisp like Guinness Extra Stout while the caramel and mild sourness of West Indies Porter lit up the receptors in my brain which enjoy Guinness Foreign Extra Stout but left them craving the weight and complexity that Foreign Extra delivers at 7.5% ABV which West Indies lacks at a mere 6%. I had to wait until last weekend and the release of the bottles on the Irish market to get my hands on them and do a proper taste test.

Guinness special editions tasting very similar to each other is something I'm used to. Anyone who worked through the Brewhouse Series almost a decade ago may remember. But the brewers I met at St. James's Gate are adamant that all the beers are radically different from each other, even the Brewhouse Series. The amount of aroma Goldings added to West Indies Porter is off the charts for a Guinness beer enthused Gearóid, and again I believe him. I just could not smell that for myself. "Could the common taste be down to the Essence?" I asked, referring to the soured syrup that Diageo produces to give all Guinness worldwide a signature flavour. Gearóid's answer was a phrase I have never heard on a brewery tour before: "We don't talk about that."

And so down to business. A blind triangle tasting of both beers and what I regard as their respective close cousins. Could I tell them apart, and which are better?

The six 100ml glasses of 10°C beer in front of me were a uniform black with barely any difference despite the weakest being half the strength of the strongest. I figured head colour would be a dead giveaway so they were carefully poured with no foam showing. A first go through the set showed clearly which were the strong three and which the weak three, but there was nothing else obvious.

Picking the odd one out from the weaker three was almost impossible: it was just glass after glass of watery fizz. I tried drinking them in different sequences, pausing for water between them, and running through them in quick succession but it was very difficult to spot any distinguishing features. Going past the wateriness, and letting the beer warm and flatten a bit, I started getting hints of chocolate and a green vegetal complexity, just shading towards metal. This was in all three but I half-guessed that I could taste it a tiny bit less in one of the three so I marked that as Guinness Extra Stout and the other two as Dublin Porter, and I was correct.

Interestingly, as I finished off the leftovers once the challenge was over and the beers had been sitting out a while, I found that the Extra Stout got more full-flavoured as it approached room temperature: your classic large-bottle-off-the-shelf. The Dublin Porter did not, however, staying as thin and dull as when first taken from the cooler. So, if faced with a choice of just Dublin Porter and Extra Stout which to pick? I now appreciate that there is a mildly stronger flavour in cool Dublin Porter, but the emphasis is on mild there. But warmer Extra Stout was a revelation: I never would have guessed there would be such an appreciable difference between 3.8% ABV and 4.2% ABV, but that extra 0.4 really does add heft. Room temperature Guinness Extra Stout remains the company's best session-strength option.

The stronger set was easier. One of my glasses contained a hot 'n' heavy sour coffee and caramel madman, the other two a more gently sour, roastier beer with an added metallic edge. It wasn't too much of a reach to guess that the former was Foreign Extra and the latter West Indies Porter. And it's not just the alcohol difference that gave it away. I was on alert for those bonus Goldings that Gearóid had mentioned and though there was no sign at all of them in the aroma (all six smelled of damn all), there was a discernible crunchy green cabbage flavour behind the signature sour Guinnessy tang. I've tasted English hops doing that before, especially when in quantity.

I stand by my initial impression that West Indies Porter does have much in common with Foreign Extra, but this test proved that it is markedly different from it, though I wouldn't at all say that it's an improvement, apart from the bottle size. The next phase of the test should be to determine whether a half litre serving of West Indies Porter delivers more pleasure than 33cl of Foreign Extra Stout, but I think these beers have already taken up enough of my time and your screen.

All four beers are unmistakably Guinness and I think I'll have to agree to disagree with the Diageo bods on whether this is a strength or a flaw. In the microbrewing sector it's commonplace to hear of a company recruiting a brewer who has Guinness experience. While visiting James's Gate I took the opportunity to ask if the reverse happens: do brewers from Irish micros ever take jobs with them? The answer was no. While there's a certain amount of cross-pollination between the big industrial multinationals, nothing from the craft side. I think the result of this inward-looking philosophy can be tasted in these new beers, and every other Guinness brand extension where the consumer complains that it's not different enough. To the brewers and execs for whom Guinness represents archetypal porter perfection honed over centuries these variations are an audacious victory, instilling the quintessence of the brand in a radically different host body. This stout drinker thinks they should get out more.

(For more longer-than-usual blog posts about beer from a variety of authors, check in with Boak and Bailey this Saturday and follow their #beerylongreads project.)

19 comments:

  1. Interesting that the guy at the brewery didn't deny using the Essence to flavour beer brewed in Dublin, possibly including these two. If that is what they do it would explain a lot.

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    1. Why would the place of brewing make any difference? It's not like Guinness Essence is meant as a substitute for some magic fairy dust imbued in the environment, lambic-like, at St. James's Gate.

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    2. No, I meant that people see the "Guinness Essence added to a local beer without much flavour of its own" process as a way of faking up something similar to the real thing, as brewed at St James's Gate. If they're using the same process in Dublin (and, from their point of view, why wouldn't they?) then there is no "real thing" - not even from the Brewers' Project.

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    3. Strictly speaking it's all the real thing. The pint you get in Bangkok and Buenos Aires is made the same way as the one you get in Dublin, and tastes the same. That's what the -geo bit in the company name means.

      The "essence of Dublin" claptrap sounds like the marketing people making a USP out of an inconvenient necessity, like they did with the two-part pour.

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    4. I know what you're saying, but the base-beer-plus-Essence thing leaves a bad taste (in more ways than one, ho ho). It just seems a bit, well, Sodastream-y - and I suspect that's why they don't talk about it.

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    5. I think it's because they don't want anyone to steal it. I got the impression they don't think anything they do is wrong. They let me take photos in their additives cupboard, FFS.

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  2. Seems to be some parallels here to the rather daft "There's a Beer For That" UK campaign. The old and tired big brewers will always do what big brewers do, whatever way they choose to dress it up.

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    1. It's definitely preferable to just churning out the same old tired crap year after year. New crap at least offers a choice of crap, and something for me to write about.

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    2. The thing is though, I like Guninness FES.

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  3. I liked the west Indies. Best stout / porter in my local supermarket and 9 times out of 10 the local pub that has some in the fridge. But let's be honest it's beer with a clear aim of stopping craft porter and stouts edging into what guiness see as their market. Now if they can start getting the w I into music venues, student bars and naff pubs ( ie places it's the best thing available) then I approve but will mainly be out looking for quality pubs with elland 1872 , magic rocks dark arts etc,

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    1. I'm not a subscriber to the zero-sum approach to beer diversity, and I think any brewer who is is foolish. The market share these beers are designed to pick up, I reckon, is the declining one for their own mainstream offerings.

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  4. Gary Gillman7:04 pm

    What is the name of the third column under Malt in the 1796 log? It doesn't look like "amber", what does it say? Also, the summaries on the page appear to refer to ale brewing, not porter-brewing.

    I found your report very good and commendable for its candor. For the life of me I don't understand why Guinness, having gone to all this trouble, would not produce beers simply from these records. (And other credible evidence exists especially from Richard Hughes's book). Also, hop aroma generally was not a feature of British porter and stout production. True, some export stout was dry-hopped, so perhaps the reference to Goldings aroma was meant in that regard, but still it was atypical. Porter is not pale ale and is distinguished by its bitterness and flavour of the malt bill.

    Certainly it is within Guinness's right not to discuss any part of its production process but having invited some knowledgeable people to discuss the beers, I think it should have been prepared to talk about the syrup or extract aspect, what it means, how and when it is used, etc.

    Gary

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    1. The malt columns are brown, pale and total, and yes, that's one of the ale pages.

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  5. Gary Gillman9:15 pm

    Thanks so no amber. I wonder why brown malt would be used in ale, it would not have been, in fact. It looks like a porter recipe, e.g. the first entry meaning 25% brown malt was used, which would certainly colour the beer a fair distance albeit not black-brown. Perhaps ale was used to mean porter for the purpose of the production totals, or for some reason we are shown only the ale total but not the porter one. If all brown malt was used for porter, then the company made more ale than porter, apparently. Lots of questions and hard to extrapolate from this one page...

    Gary

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    1. Good point. I wonder is that just the right-hand side of the heading, and it says "Porter and..." or something on the left.

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  6. Great read, I agree, the latest Guinness releases are bland and lean too close to the commercial and too far from the craft. I do love their foreign extra stout and a good pint of Guinness still does it for me. They should look to left hand nitro stout for some inspiration in my opinion.

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    1. Thanks, though I wouldn't be in favour of using Left Hand's Nitro as a model for anything: it's pretty bland stuff compared to any of the decent stouts Ireland produces, for example. The new Guinness microbrewery has produced a milk stout, funnily enough. I'll have a review of that up soon.

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