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Mysteries of Guinness Revealed

by: BeerAdvocate on 04-11-2006
When most people think of Guinness, they think of that dark stuff with the creamy smooth head that takes ages to pour. But Guinness is serious big business. Operating breweries around the world, it sells 10 million pints in more than 150 countries daily. Due to its size and its affiliation with parent company Diageo - a massive international conglomerate - it has been the subject of much debate among beer geeks over the years.

Politics aside, we’ve always been Guinness fans. So when we heard that Fergal Murray, one of the company’s head brewmasters, was in town for a promotional pub crawl, we just had to tag along. Our goal: to debunk some of the rumors and unravel some of the mysteries of the Guinness brand, while enjoying a pint or two along the way.

Brewing Process
Guinness Draft. Mysterious, ain't it?Murray explained that the recipe for Guinness has undergone only minor adjustments over the years. Every keg of Guinness Draught imported to the US comes from St. James’s Gate in Dublin (though Guinness Extra Stout is made in Canada). It contains water, malt, roasted barley, hops and yeast - and that’s it. Like many major labels, Guinness relies on “high-gravity brewing,” which involves large batches of wort (unfermented beer) high in fermentable sugars (note to beer geeks: the goal is a 1072 gravity). Eventually these are watered down to attain a 4.2 percent ABV (alcohol by volume). The brewers also blend batches to aid in consistency, and the beer is pasteurized.

What Guinness wouldn’t confirm or deny is the rumor that a portion of each batch is aged in very old oak tuns populated with Brettanomyces and lactic acid bacteria to lend Guinness its characteristic touch of sourness. Supposedly, it’s then pasteurized and blended into the remainder of the batch.

As for the hops, the vast majority hail from the US, with some European hops to round things out. The brewers look for high levels of alpha acids (these are the source of hops’ bitterness) in order to get more “bang for their buck,” as Murray put it.

And then there’s Guinness Essence, a key ingredient in the beer brewed outside of James’s Gate. Basically Guinness without the alcohol, Guinness Essence is shipped from Dublin to Guinness breweries and contractors around the world, where it’s added to a base beer brewed locally. The entire process is conducted according to strict guidelines; according to Murray, it lends a “touch of Dublin” to every batch, regardless of place of origin.

Guinness Brewmaster, Fergal Murry, enjoy a pint of the black suff.A lot of Guinness lovers swear the beer’s color has recently changed from black to ruby red. Murray insisted otherwise; rather, only certain types of glassware (like the company’s own narrow-bottomed vessels), he said, truly showcase the beer’s ruby hue.

It’s commonly believed that dark beer is heavy beer. Guinness’s super-creamy head only adds to its rep for richness. (The head is the result of a special gas blend of around 60 percent nitrogen to 40 percent carbon dioxide; cans and bottles of Guinness include a specially designed widget that disperses a nitrogen blend.) But Guinness has only 125 calories and 10 carbs per 12-ounce serving - fewer than pale-yellow Budweiser.

According to Murray, Guinness should be served at 42 degrees Fahrenheit in the glass. If it’s any warmer, unwanted flavors might emerge; any colder, and desirable flavors might be lost on a numb palate. What about Guinness Extra Cold, you ask? It’s actually only 1 degree colder; the label is mostly a marketing ploy aimed at consumers who balk at the thought of “warm beer.”

Foreign Extra Stout (FES)
Beer lovers are constantly asking: "Why can't I get Foreign Extra Stout in the US?" FES being the much loved 7.5 percent version of Guinness found in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. Murray noted that it doesn't make any business sense, and that Guinness runs through some big distributors nationwide. Most are old-school and not in the biz of dealing with specialty brands. They'd most likely not put any effort into selling it, not know what to do with it, and not want to focus on anything that might cut into their Guinness Draught cash cow. As much as we'd love to see it in the US, we'd have to agree. It'd be a damn shame to introduce this beer to the US and have it rot on the shelves.

So there you have it. Next time you enjoy a pint of Guinness, you’ll do so with a bit more knowledge.

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