Guinness is a mighty global brand but there are signs that it is struggling to maintain its position as The Stout. In Britain, in particular, its popularity has been sliding for almost a decade: between 2008 and 2014 sales dropped by approximately 50 million liters per year, from more than 250 million to around 200 million.
Quite apart from cold numbers there is the woollier but very much related question of status. We know from anecdotal evidence that among British beer geeks the standard Guinness stouts are not regarded with much fondness at all—a situation all the more surprising when its recent history is considered.
In the mid-20th century, it is no exaggeration to say that Guinness was regarded as about the hippest beer around—a brew for connoisseurs, and a beer of almost mystical complexity and brilliance. That view was expressed eloquently by the humorist Paul Jennings in a 1959 article in The Times of London in which he referred to a long-running advertising campaign featuring pints of Guinness with smiling faces in their foam:
This smile is the nearest they have got to expressing the true mana of Guinness — that great Irish mystery and paradox, the light froth from the unimaginable dark heart of the liquid, the light from darkness, like the laughter and wit that well up from the Irish soul itself… I, like any other non-Irish consumer of Guinness, drink it because it is there… [in] the sense in which Mallory said that Everest was there. I might drink beer automatically, but Guinness is a thing, it has to be reckoned with.
Back then, enthusiasts shared details of the oddities of its manufacture such as the addition of soured beer to give the finished product its tang, and discussed how temperamental it could be if stored and served at the wrong temperature, or for too long, or not long enough.
As far as British drinkers were concerned there was a strict hierarchy: draught Guinness brewed in Dublin was swooned over. Bottled Guinness brewed in Dublin was a close second. The products of Guinness’ London brewery, Park Royal, which opened in 1936, were poor relations, but still quite acceptable.
Bottled Guinness was a staple in most British pubs, and cities with substantial Irish populations also had draught Guinness if one knew where to look. From the 1930s the truly discerning would trek to London’s East End to drink draught Guinness (probably London brewed) at the White Hart on Mile End Road, AKA Murphy’s, or in central London they could visit Mooney’s on The Strand and Ward’s Irish House at Piccadilly Circus.
In the 1950s, recognizing that draught Guinness had a cult following, management took steps to increase the supply, establishing a small team to work on the challenge of serving it in a way that preserved its mystique—and especially the creamy head—without requiring publicans to be expert Guinness tamers. By 1958 they had perfected a system known as Easy Serve which used a mix of nitrogen and carbon dioxide to create a soft, stable head without fizz.
The popularity of this new form of draught Guinness among U.K. drinkers took the brewery’s management by surprise. As Brendan Nolan, a Guinness advertising man, once observed, drinkers viewed it as, “At last, the real thing,” and its fame spread by word of mouth. This was frustrating for some at the London brewery who knew that the draught version was pasteurized, unlike the bottles.
Veteran beer writer Roger Protz recorded in his memoir A Life on the Hop, published in 2009, a peer’s observation that if all kegged (i.e. pasteurized, filtered, artificially carbonated) beers had been as good as draught Guinness then the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) would never have got off the ground. This is a remarkable testament to just how good it must have been at that time, when ‘keg’ was otherwise utterly reviled.
Throughout the 1960s and into the 70s Guinness fought hard to own the U.K. stout market. Old British brands such as Mackeson, a sweet stout produced by Whitbread, lost ground to the beefier, drier Irish incomer. In 1969 Bass Charrington and Watney’s, two of the huge conglomerates that dominated British brewing at the time, contrived a rival brew called Colonel Murphy’s, but they gave up after six months and surrendered, agreeing (after years of pressure from Park Royal) to sell draught Guinness in their own vast estates of pubs. Soon, Guinness seemed to be in every pub, in every home, and on every TV—VHS to Mackeson’s BetaMax.
Already brewed and drunk around the world in various forms, with the roll out of Irish theme pubs from the early 1990s, draught Guinness was soon to be found in everywhere from Mongolia to Manitoba, emerging from increasingly elaborate chromed fonts, dripping with condensation, each pint cosmetically identical to the next. Literally iconic.
But, somewhere along the line, the beer itself seems to have lost the very soul that helped it rise to such dominance. Beers that are around for a long time often come to be perceived as Not What They Used to Be (see also Pilsner Urquell, for example). Sometimes that is down to jaded palates, or is the result of a counter-cultural bias against big brands and big business. Both of those might apply to Guinness but there is also objective evidence of a drop in quality, or at least of essential changes to the product.
Guinness has tended to be secretive about process, recipes and ingredients but we do know, for example, that the temperature of draught Guinness dropped significantly from about 1988 onward, falling from a typical 12 degrees Celsius to a target of 7 degrees. This is one thing that caused those drinkers of traditional cask-conditioned ale who had regarded draught Guinness as the one tolerable keg beer to turn against it.
Still, the bottled version remained unpasteurized and bottle-conditioned, and its reputation among the cognoscenti soared. But, as the 1990s approached, the firm was convinced the creamy head was the key to the beer’s appeal and so began to put all its effort into marketing canned beer with a surge-inducing ‘widget’. The bottle was no longer the prestige take home product. By 1989 the only place bottle-conditioned Guinness could be found in England and Wales was in pubs and it was phased out entirely from 1994.
These measures, though they increased sales among mainstream drinkers, might almost have been designed to alienate enthusiasts and writers who had previously championed Guinness, such as Protz who today says, “I was devastated when Guinness turned Original from a bottle-conditioned stout into a run-of-the-mill filtered beer.”
Bill Yenne’s 2007 authorized history of the brewery, Guinness: The 250-year Search for the Perfect Pint, has Guinness master brewer Fergal Murray confirming that roast barley extract added to the boil has indeed replaced roasted barley proper in the mash tun. David Hughes, who worked for Guinness in London from 1972, includes in his 2006 book A Bottle of Guinness, Please many details of how Guinness has been made through the years and he records that hop extracts were introduced to the process for London-brewed Guinness from 1983. He also mentions that high gravity brewing—brewing at high strength and then, in layman’s terms, watering down—was introduced in 1990.
Beyond what’s on record, there are also rumors that wood-aging of the soured blending beer has given way to an addition of food-grade lactic acid. We put this to Diageo’s press office who were unable to confirm or deny, but arranged for us to speak to a brewer, albeit with the caveat that they didn’t expect anyone at the brewery would be willing or able to give away such information either.
When master brewer Steve Kilcullen called, he was charming but defensive. With some prodding he admitted that hop extracts were used but said, “I have to say I don’t think there’s any difference in flavor.” When asked about lactic acid, he became almost frosty, choosing his words with the care of a Soviet diplomat: “There’s a number of elements we don’t talk about, as I’m sure you’ll understand.” One change he was happy to discuss was the reduction in dissolved oxygen in the beer over the last 20 years: “Dissolved oxygen is a total no-no, it imparts off flavors. If you drank a beer with dissolved oxygen in high concentration you’d say, it’s off, it’s not right.”
The problem is, as independent breweries become ever more transparent, this tight-lipped protection of trade secrets and “mystery,” as its staff seem to have been drilled to mention at every turn, gives the unfortunate impression that perhaps Guinness is not as proud of its processes and ingredients as it likes to insist.
While each of the changes listed above might, in isolation, be possible to dismiss as making a negligible difference to flavor, together they must surely have an effect. Is Guinness a different beer now than 60 years ago? Definitely. Is it worse? It is certainly hard to imagine it inspiring any writer today to swoon as Paul Jennings did in 1958.
It is probably no coincidence that the great drop in U.K. sales happens to coincide with the rise of American-style craft beer in the U.K., and the approximate doubling in the number of independent breweries. Where Guinness was once the choice of the free-thinking iconoclast, that is a role now played more ably by a strong IPA, quirky saison or, yes, an alternative stout from the brewery on the corner. In Britain and Ireland today the absence of Guinness is often an important way in which a bar or pub signals its status as a Serious Beer Place. Martin Hayes is the head of the Craft Beer Company which runs a string of beer-focused pubs and bars across London, none of which serve Guinness. “Our perspective is that it’s available across the board,” he says, carefully. “Our focus is on smaller producers. It’s not a comment on Guinness per se.”
The Porterhouse, with branches in Dublin and London, is famous for its own range of stouts. It pays homage to Guinness with creamy nitro heads but, at the same time, amplifies the flavor. Meantime, founded in London by Alastair Hook in 2000, has had a strong bottle-conditioned porter, in 750-mL champagne-style bottles, as one of its flagship beers since 2005, and also has a London Stout. When in 2011 Camden Brewery released a nitrogenated draught stout, Camden Ink, its name and graphic design inspired by tattoo culture, it promptly displaced Guinness from many of the more fashionable bar counters across London.
The last year or two has seen a further flurry of new stouts launched by regional brewers keen to convince committed Guinness drinkers to switch to something reassuringly similar, but different. Cornish brewery St Austell Brewery, founded in 1851, recently launched Mena Dhu, a stout which, on draught, looks just like Guinness but has a deeper, smokier, sweeter flavor. The bottled version, with live yeast, lacks the creamy head but evokes the supposedly ambrosial packaged Guinness of 30 years ago. (The recipe is completely original.)
For its part, Guinness is trying to boost its credibility by launching a range of new beers. Two historically inspired bottled stouts—West Indies Porter and Dublin Porter—are good but probably not exciting enough to win over cider drinkers, lager lovers or BrewDog fans. A lackluster golden ale that is actually brown, and experiments with IPA and lager, don’t seem to be hitting the spot either. A handful of more adventurous beers, such as a toasted oatmeal brown ale with vanilla, are coming out of the Open Gate microbrewery at St. James’s Gate, open to the public on Thursdays and Fridays.
Our suggestion is simple: they should take standard Guinness and pep it up, just a touch. Make it a notch stronger, a little more bitter, and ship at least one version with live yeast. When we’ve floated this idea in the past we’ve been told by those in the know that it’s a pipe dream: Guinness is now too big to change course, and the brewery is too sterile and streamlined to allow for packaging with live yeast. And yet, shortly before this article was published, word came from Dublin-based beer blogger John ‘The Beer Nut’ Duffy that, at the on-site experimental brewery at least, a cask-conditioned version of Guinness stout might soon be pouring.
That’s a good start.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly used the name West India Export instead of West Indies Porter.
Boak & Bailey have been blogging at boakandbailey.com since 2007. They were named 2014 beer writers of the year by the British Guild of Beer Writers for Brew Britannia: The Strange Rebirth of British Beer. They live in Cornwall in the far west of the U.K.