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:
|The 10hL brewhouse|
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|
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."
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.)