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Everything You Need to Know About Guinness

Everything You Need to Know About Guinness

Guinness: the iconic black pint with the creamy white clerical collar and a flash of ruby in its depths. Who doesn't know it? Who hasn't drunk it?

But while Guinness is famed and drunk around the world, half the world knows a very different kind of Guinness to the drink the other half swallows. In Ireland, the drink's original home, North America and Europe, Guinness Draft—which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year—is the familiar friend to lovers of creamy stout. Served in a pint glass, with its initial surge of bubbles that gradually settle out into the familiar deep, dark body and blond head.

In Africa and Asia, drinkers are much more familiar with an older style of Guinness, known as Foreign Extra Stout, or FES, which comes in bottles, is almost twice as strong as draft Guinness and has a powerful, tart flavor that’s surprisingly refreshing in a hot climate.

The story of Guinness is the tale of how one small and run-down brewhouse on a street lined with other breweries grew into what became, for a long time, the biggest brewery in the world.

Many drinkers know that Arthur Guinness, the founder of the company, acquired the brewery at St James's Gate in Dublin, Ireland in 1759, when he was 35. But the St James's Gate brewery goes back almost a century before that. Its first known occupant was Giles Mee, who was paying hearth tax on a property at St James's Gate in 1663 and was brewing on location by 1670.

Arthur Guinness acquired the brewery at St. James's Gate in 1759 and was likely brewing his famed porter a few years later.

The brewery at St James's Gate passed to Mee's son-in-law, Mark Rainsford, and then to a Huguenot family of French settlers called Espinasse. But in 1750 the then owner, John Espinasse, was thrown from his horse near Drogheda, some 30 miles north of Dublin, and—depending on which newspaper report you read—either fractured his skull or dislocated his neck, dying immediately.

Although St James's Street was a popular thoroughfare with brewers, thanks to the several watercourses that ran across it down to the Liffey, Dublin's main river (even in 1804 a city directory listed eight breweries on the street), the St James's Gate premises appear to have remained empty for nine years after John Espinasse's death, until Arthur Guinness came along in 1759 to sign his now-famous 9,000-year lease.

The drinks that Dublin's breweries were making at the time were table beer, and a strong, lightly hopped brown ale. But they were suffering increasing competition from imports of English Porter, the aged, well-hopped brown-black beer that had originally been developed to appeal to the working classes of London, but which had found a market around the world.

Dublin's brewers responded by brewing porters themselves from the 1760s onward. Exactly when Arthur Guinness first made porter is not known, but he was probably doing so by 1779, when he was appointed one of the two official suppliers of ale and beer to Dublin Castle, seat of the Irish government, and definitely by 1784, when he was specifically fingered as the supplier of porter to the castle.

Guinness was still making the traditional Dublin brown ale as well. But early in 1799 the decision was made to stop brewing ale completely. From then on, Guinness would be a porter and stout specialist. Arthur Guinness I died four years later, in 1803, aged 78, and the brewery was continued by his second son, Arthur Guinness II. Already a special, stronger, more heavily hopped West India porter was being brewed, which eventually developed into what became known as Foreign Extra Stout.

By 1810 Guinness was brewing Superior Porter, "a stouter kind of porter,"  made only from November to May. Around the same time Guinness began brewing an even stronger beer, Extra Superior Porter, also known as Double Stout, about a third stronger than its standard Country Porter and with a higher hop rate. Extra Superior Porter was stored for five months or more to mature, before being bottled the summer after it was brewed, and became particularly popular in Britain. By 1840 Extra Superior Porter, eventually renamed Extra Stout, made up four out of five pints brewed at St James's Gate.

Helped by the success of Extra Stout, from the 1860s onwards Guinness grew and grew, eventually dominating Ireland, making big dents in Britain, and becoming the largest brewery in the world. By 1890 sales were 688,000 barrels of porter a year (99.8 percent of it in Ireland), 613,500 barrels of Extra Stout (51 percent of it in Britain) and another 80,000 or so barrels of Foreign Extra Stout. The brewery produced eight tons of excess yeast a day, which was sold for £8 a ton to Irish whiskey distillers.

The First World War hammered beer drinkers, as the British government (which still ruled Ireland) raised taxes and pushed down beer strengths to try to discourage drinking and save grain. When the war started, Guinness Porter had an original gravity of  1058 OG, while the Extra Stout and Foreign Stout had an OG of 1073. By the end of the war, Extra Stout was reduced to 1049 OG, with porter at 1036. Only Foreign Extra Stout kept its original strength. One result was that in Ireland, drinkers began switching to Extra Stout, and sales of Guinness Porter fell from around one third of barrelage in 1913 to little more than an eighth by the late 1920s.

Guinness Extra Stout's alcohol strength was lowered in the early 20th century, making it one of the most popular beers in the brewery's portfolio.

In 1932 Guinness decided that it needed to open a brewery in England. A site was chosen at Park Royal, in Northwest London, and the brewery opened in 1936—but only after the plant at Park Royal was supplied with Extra Stout bought over from Dublin in order to "mature" the new wooden fermenting vessels and vats at Park Royal and try to reproduce the microbiological climate the company believed was essential to give Guinness its unique flavor.

During the Second World War, Guinness opened its second overseas brewery, in the United States. In 1849 Arthur Guinness II had set up two of his nephews, Edward and John Burke, as bottlers, and their firm subsequently became the largest importer of Guinness in North America.

In 1934, after Prohibition ended, E&J Burke opened a brewery in Long Island City, New York, where it brewed its own ale and stout, as well as continuing to distribute Guinness. The Guinness sold in the United States was the Foreign Extra Stout, still 1073 OG, still naturally conditioned in the bottle, heavily hopped and high in acidity, and appealing only to connoisseurs. In 1943 Guinness bought E&J Burke, including its Long Island brewery, and in 1946 it decided it should brew the lower-hopped, less-acidic Extra Stout in Long Island for the American market.

However, this would not be the "modern" Extra Stout. Instead, the plan was to recreate in Long Island the Extra Stout as it had been brewed in Dublin before the First World War, at the same high gravity as FES but with a lower hop rate and less acidity. The Long Island brewery began producing this "retro" Extra Stout in 1948, tweaking the brew slightly the following year to be more like FES. Sales of Guinness in the United States doubled to 16,000 barrels a year, but thus was barely half the break-even point of 30,000 barrels a year. The problem was a taste palate that was not attuned to the American mass market in the late 1940s, which liked its beer cold and pale. Eventually in 1954 the Long Island brewery had to be closed.

Meanwhile, in Britain, Guinness was trying to improve the market for draft stout, by putting the beer into metal containers. The traditional way to serve draft Guinness, porter or stout, was from two separate casks, known as the "high" cask and the "low" cask. For the "high" version, stout was racked into an especially strong cask, left for 24 hours, and then blended with a quantity of unfermented wort and yeast, which kicked off a new fermentation and, 10 days later, resulted in a foaming, creamy beer with considerable carbon dioxide condition.

When delivered to pubs, the "high" cask, or "gyle cask" (from "gyle" meaning unfermented beer) was placed on a stillage above the "low" cask, which contained older, flatter beer. Publicans would fill a glass three quarters with beer from the gyle cask and then top it up from the low cask with flatter beer, to achieve, when everything settled, the classic black pint with the tight white head. Guinness had used white American oak to make its casks. However, imports to Ireland of oak for making new casks stopped at the beginning of World War II, and even after the end of the war, foreign exchange problems meant a lack of dollars to buy supplies from the United States. Thus in 1946 the brewery experimented with putting stout in casks made of steel.

The flavor of Guinness Foreign Extra Stout in the 1930s was mainly due to the beer's maturation in wooden vats for over a year, allowing Brettanomyces and lactic bacteria to lend the beer an estery, refreshing tartness.

Publicans and drinkers quickly found that the steel containers, manufactured in Germany, and nicknamed by pubgoers "iron lungs" (after the mechanical devices used to assist polio victims to breathe), delivered a more consistent, creamier pint, with a longer-lasting head, than the wooden casks, and the Dublin "drinking fraternity" began to ask for "a pint from the lung."

Guinness recognized that serving stout from metal containers was the way forward, but the "high cask and low cask" method, even with steel casks, was still laborious and awkward. A team at Park Royal in London led by a man called Michael Ash worked for four years on the problem, eventually realizing that the way to get the same creamy head that so delighted drinkers of Guinness served up the traditional way was to use nitrogen pressure, which produced tinier, more long-lasting bubbles in the beer, with just enough carbon dioxide to give it some bite.

The result, launched in 1959, was the "Easiserve" system, a double-chamber aluminum keg with the "piston gases" in the top and stout in the bottom. With tweaks and improvements, the system invented by Michael Ash is still basically the way Guinness draft is served today. It was also the first of what became a new category of Nitro beers.

At the same time Guinness was developing technology that would enable its other popular variation to be more widely brewed and consumed. The flavor of Foreign Extra Stout was originally down to its long maturation, which let Brettanomyces yeasts and lactic bacteria give the beer an estery tartness that drinkers found highly refreshing. But that took time: a year or more of storage in giant wooden vats. Two Dublin brewers invented a method of concentrating the matured beer so that a small quantity could be added to fresh stout and give it all the flavor of beer that had spent 12 months in a deep, cool cellar. Eventually Guinness realized that highly concentrated "Guinness flavor extract" could be added to any beer—even a pale lager—to turn it into something indistinguishable from long-matured FES. In the 1960s the company opened a brewery in Nigeria, which had long been one of the biggest markets for Guinness and shipped out GFE from Dublin to be added to a pale beer brewed there to create FES for the Nigeria market. It was highly successful, and eventually helped Guinness expand overseas. With the help of the brewery’s inventive GFE, Guinness is now brewed in 49 different countries.

Through all those technological changes, however, Guinness’s emphasis has always been on delivering great taste to consumers, as much as (or more than) the money-saving tactics used to cut corners that seem to characterize other brewing giants. For that, Guinness, which is now part of giant beverage conglomerate Diageo, still earns some kudos. Brooklyn Brewery cofounder Steve Hindy says: “Of all the mass-marketed beers in the world, I think Guinness is the one beer most respected by America’s craft brewers. Its understated marketing and commitment to flavor, quality and presentation have been an inspiration for craft brewers.”

It is possible Arthur Guinness would not recognize the beer sold in his name as a descendant of his original porter: he would be astonished to discover, for example, that brown malt is no longer mashed with pale malt, but Guinness stout starts off as a purely pale wort, and the color comes from roasted barley boiled separately, the black extract added at the kettle stage. But he would enjoy the creamy head and the touches of coffee and chocolate that can be found in the depths of draft Guinness, and he would probably be fascinated by the "surge and settle" of the nitrogen-powered pour.

Today the company is finding that, with so many beer drinkers constantly looking for something new, having one brand, no matter how legendary and entrenched, is not necessarily enough. It has introduced new lines, bringing back a beer called West Indies Porter, making a milk stout and dabbling in IPAs. But without a doubt Guinness has been the "gateway stout" for many drinkers, their first experience of the dark side of beer, and it still represents, in many ways, the "platonic ideal" of a stout. There can be no brewer in the world who brews a stout and does not think, somewhere in the back of their mind: "How does this compare to Guinness?"

Header Photo Courtesy Flickr/Stephen Edgar