Weird beer is.. well... pretty much what it says on the packet. Or bottle. Most of us drink a limited range of beers because they're what we're used to, or what we can afford. Sometimes we try other beers out of curiosity, or nostalgia.
Guinness may not sound particularly weird: anyone who drinks beer is likely to have tried it. There is however more to it than meets the eye. Not only has the formula changed over the years: several kinds of Guinness are brewed in Ireland alone, never mind the ones that are brewed elsewhere including Africa. The first Guinness I drank, maybe 50 years ago, was a rather different drink to the stuff you find today, and today's "widgeted" canned Guinness is downright disgusting: slimy and sweet, largely as a result of the nitrogen which replaces much of the carbon dioxide naturally produced by fermentation.
A few months ago, though, I first encountered Guinness Special Export, originally commissioned by John Martin of Belgium in 1912. At 8% ABV (Alcohol By Volume) it is a lot stronger than "normal" modern Guinness (4.2-4.6%) and tastes a lot better as well. It was a classic example of drinking beer for nostalgic reasons, and I was very pleasantly surprised. So was Frances, who is much more of a connoisseur of beer than I: I am more of a wine drinker. We agreed that it was like the first time we had tried Guinness: massive flavour and quite a kick. Unfortunately it's quite hard to find, and when Frances drank our last can a day or two before I wrote this, she carefully crushed it for recycling; as seen on the right.
The day after that, by pure chance, there was a so-called beer festival at one of our local supermarkets, and they had Guinness West Indies Porter. At 6%, this was introduced in 2014 and is reputedly based on an 1801 recipe for a beer that would withstand shipping to some of the farther-flung parts of the Empire. This was achieved by adding more hops: the same trick as India Pale Ale. It's also described as being stronger than the Guinness of the dawn of the 19th century, but even though I don't know how strong "ordinary" Guinness was in those days, I suspect that the difference may not have been all that great: after all "stout" was pretty much synonymous with "strong beer" at the time. So we tried some...
It was a grave disappointment, especially after the Special Export. Stronger beers normally have more flavour, but in this case it was masked by an excess of hops. As Frances put it, "If somebody gave you some, without explaining that it was anything other than ordinary Guinness, you'd wonder what you had been eating beforehand that made it taste wrong." We are not alone in our assessment: a quick look at a few beer-rating sites, which often give beers "star" ratings out of five, seem to put Special Export a star or more ahead of West Indies Porter.
They are very different beers, and both are significantly superior to the slimy nitrogenous stuff that Guinness normally sells in cans, or peddles half-frozen on draught; but unless you are easily taken in by Guinness's massive marketing machine or like extremely highly hopped beers, Special Export is worth drinking and West Indies Porter isn't.
And, of course, there are plenty of other dark (and indeed light) beers that are worth trying. I hope to write about some of them in due course.
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Words and picture copyright Roger Hicks 2018