“Guinness: It’s good for you!” was the advertising motto of the world’s most popular stout for a good part of the 20th century. As a 13-year old drinking my first pint of it in a Dublin pub, I came up with my own slogans. “Drink this stuff from the River Liffey, and you’ll be sick, in a jiffy” was one. “It’s foaming head kills bugs dead” was another. But soon I learned not only to love this stuff (an event that occurred before the very pint I was mocking was half-gone) but I came to favor this style of beer in general.
Once you go black you can’t go back, and for me there was no returning to the canned piss water that is most of the beer sold in the United States. Lagers, even really good ones, remain my least favorite beers. There are lots of ales that are delicious, but my heart belongs to porter specifically. Stout, porter, beer, ale — what does it all mean? Pour me a pint and I’ll tell you.
Ah, good. Well, first I’m obligated to say that like most systems of nomenclature, there are some inconsistencies and vagaries. But I still feel confident — and more confident with every sip — that I can give you the suss on these basic terms.
It’s all beer, so don’t let anyone convince you that a certain brand “is an ale (or whatever) and not a beer.” You don’t have to take a swing at them, just don’t believe it. According to Michael Jackson (an Englishman who is as famous in the beer world as the identically-named King of Pop was in the music world), six centuries ago there was a distinction, briefly, but it’s long gone.
Dark beers get their color from malt, germinated grains that resemble bean sprouts one finds in a salad. The malt is cooked before it’s added to the brewing process. For lighter beers, care is taken to avoid carbonization that will add pigment to the finished product. For darker beers, the idea is to toast the malt so that a dark color — and more importantly a deep, dark flavor — is the final result.
There are three principle types of beers — lager, lambic, and ale — and one can’t always tell which is which by looking at it. One can’t always tell by taste either, although maybe the English Michael Jackson and other experts at that level are able to.
With few exceptions, when a beer is brewed so that all the gross vomity-looking yeast that gets thrown away sinks to the bottom, that’s a lager. Of the three principle types of beer, lager is the youngest. Developed in Austria and Bavaria in the mid 1800s, it soon became the lifeblood of the whole German beer culture of gigantic steins and the Reinheitsgebot laws that had already been laid down centuries before.
Pilsner is one of the first distinct types of lagers developed; Heineken is an example of it, as is the Chinese beer Tsingtao. Bock, a sometimes-dark lager that has managed to grow testes, is still another. So are the “American-style lagers” I previously compared to diluted urine. In fact, lager is the most popular beer in the world.
To my own pallet, Asian lagers such as Singha (Thailand), Kirin, Suntory (both from Japan) and Tsingtao taste better (i.e. less bad) than other non-Bock lagers. I have no explanation for that nor expectation that your own taste buds will agree; try them yourself.
Another type of beer is lambic. Except for a very few adventurous microbrewers elsewhere, lambic is a peculiar creation that only comes from certain regions in Belgium.
Rather than relying upon added yeast, lambic is a result of the untamed yeast molds and bacteria that are already found on the barley and wheat used to make it. It has a fruity taste reminiscent of wine or hard cider, and many lambics are so loaded with raspberries or other fruits that they fall into the category of “Belgian fruit beers.”
When I first staggered out of a drinkery in Brussels full of this tasty sweet but un-beer-like stuff, I thought all Belgian fruit beers were lambics. Only recently I learned plenty of Belgian fruit beers are actually ales, the type of beer most germane to discussion of Guinness and its swarthy kin.
Remember that putridness that sinks to the bottom when lager is brewed? When brewing ale, that yucky gunk floats at the top. Premium beers associated with Trappist monks in Belgium, such as the Chimay brands, are ales. So are barley wines, potent potables that substitute grains for grapes. Bitters are a pale ale overloaded with hops, while other ales, such as the various brands of “India Pale Ale” very popular with hobby brewers, aren’t hella different from certain lagers.
Ales, compared to lagers, more often have a dark color and flavor. Bass Ale is a darn good beer, and Smithwick’s (a similar beverage from Ireland) is even better. Newcastle Brown Ale is tasty, but none of these dark ales compares to Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale — divine nectar I tend to think is overpriced until it hits my tongue and reminds me otherwise.
Even though I’m beer savvy, I can’t taste the line where dark ales end and porters begin, and I suspect any division imposed between them is arbitrary. What is definitely true is that many or most of the darkest, malty-est, most flava-ful ales are classified as porters, the story of which will bring us back to Dublin via London.
Supposedly, the term “porter” takes its name from the people who drank it the most, the porters (i.e. dockworkers, teamsters) who lifted cargo off ships and carried to it locations around London like two-legged mules. Maybe, but always be suspicious of this type of etymology; even when these explanations appear in writing around the same time as the coinage, as they’re often what scholars politely call “fanciful” (and what most folks just call “fake”).
So never mind where the term “porter” came from, just know it’s a particular dark beer that seems to have appeared in London around 1700, give or take a generation. It was almost immediately popular not just because it’s delicious, but because it had a better shelf life. Other beers around at the time were shipped to pubs while they were only half-brewed. This meant that as soon as they finished becoming beer, they could be consumed before they spoiled.
Not so porter. It could finish brewing at the brewery and then be bottled up for consumption whenever. It was easy to make in large quantities, and booze-wise it was strong stuff too. Soon people where getting rich from brewing it and even more were getting rich in spirit from drinking it.
Some distinct types of porters have been identified. “Baltic porter” is a high-proof porter from the neighborhood of Russia, Poland, and Scandinavia. This stuff is a great example of why beer nomenclature is so slippery. Not only do some folks consider the traditional Baltic porter to be a stout, most Baltic porter nowadays is brewed with the sludge at the bottom. That actually makes it a lager if one accepts the technical definition.
Porter was also brewed in the American Colonies before the Revolutionary War, and “Pennsylvania porter” is a representative of this New World beer. But it’s an extra-hefty style of porter, discussed next, that’s the best known example.
There’s wide (but not universal) agreement that all stouts are porters, but not all porters are stouts. The debate about this is neither lively nor interesting, so let’s just skip it and look at the history instead.
The 18th century popularity of porter spawned variants. Some beer drinkers who favored the dark and yummy porters weren’t afraid of too much of a good thing, and increasingly darker and yummier porters grew in popularity. These roasty-good beers were dubbed with names like “double porter” or “stout porter.” That second term, when shorted, gives us “stout.”
In “Finnegan’s Wake,” the cheerily macabre 19th century Irish tune that inspired James Joyce’s eponymous Dublin epic, we’re told that Tim Finnegan is laid in his casket with a bottle of porter at his feet. “Guinness Extra Stout” was known as “Guinness Extra Superior Porter” until about the same time as this song was composed. Accordingly, there’s little reason not to think it was this same quintessentially Dublin drink that lay at the foot of poor Tim’s coffin.
The idea that “Guinness is good for you” (fearr de thº Guinness for those who “have Irish” ) wasn’t just a successful ad slogan. The company based it on some pretty shady “market research” in the 1920s in which people were asked how they felt after drinking it. Big surprise: they said they felt good. People took the idea literally and it was consumed in great quantities by nursing mothers and those with failing health. Eventually more modern sensibilities (and governmental regulations on advertising) took hold.
Guinness is the most famous Irish stout, but it’s not the only one. Its two traditional rivals, Murphy’s and Beamish, are both from Cork (Ireland’s “second city”). When I lived there doors away from the Murphy’s brewery, the smell of it and other beers brewed on-site assailed my nose as soon as I’d step out my door. The gaseous byproducts of the brewing process have an unmistakably distinct sweet scent. The odor can be nauseating, especially full on, but it’s also something I came to enjoy and, eventually, miss. In Cork City, the drinking of Guinness rather than one of the native stouts is a slightly traitorous act even though many locals themselves have actually switched to foreign-born lagers — such as Heineken and Budweiser — that are made in the same local breweries.
Some think these two Corkonian stouts are less bitter than Guinness, and Murphy’s based an ad campaign around this idea, but I’m not so sure. All three are a complex symphony of smoky tastes both bitter and sweet infused by the malting process. In describing what the non-visual senses perceive, people often fall back on comparisons. When discussing stouts, Irish and otherwise, “coffee” and “chocolate” are often mentioned, but this is more metaphor than similarity. Again, taste for yourself.
Besides these brown beers from the Emerald Island, there are stouts from elsewhere in the world. As said, the previously-mentioned “Baltic porter” is considered a stout by some and it’s similar in style to the “Imperial stouts” associated with Russia. Both share a high alcohol content that helps them survive the winters of Northern Europe without freezing.
“Milk stout” or “cream stout” is made with lactose, a sugar extracted from milk, and is sometimes called “sweet stout” for the resultant effect. “Oatmeal stout” is made fromâ€¦ can you guess? “Oyster stouts” hail from a bygone era when shellfish were a popular pub grub. Sometimes the name just implies it’s to be enjoyed with oysters, but in many cases those same mollusks are part of the brewing process. What does that taste like? I don’t know and I don’t want to know.
“Chocolate stout” and “coffee stout” are typically just terms referring to particularly dark and aromatic stouts. Less often, it means a tiny amount of that ingredient is part of the brew process. That, and especially the bit about the oysters, makes me see the sense of the German beer laws.
The proper pouring of certain beers, especially Guinness, is considered essential by many. In its most dramatic expressing, the act of drawing a good point takes on the ritual of a Japanese tea ceremony. I wouldn’t say you can completely ruin a beer by pouring it wrong. I do think the texture of the beer can suffer, especially during the initial sips, and you only get one chance to make a first impression.
But it’s beyond debate that a decent beer deserves a glass. Beer from a bottle is acceptable if you’re trying to play beach volleyball at the same time as you drink, or if you’re underage and drinking on the roof of someone’s garage, but there aren’t many other situations that justify it.
Beers, especially good beers like some of those I mentioned, have multiple layers of flavor that kick in at different times. A taste of a well-crafted beer is like a firework that rises to the air in a trail of green, explodes red, explodes blue, dances around, explodes gold, and then surprises you with a shower of orange after you thought the show was over.
This party in your mouth can take place because your taste buds aren’t evenly distributed. The guys who taste sweet cluster in one place while the guys who taste sour hang out in another, and so on. Drinking beer from a bottle is like listening to music with the bass turned all the way off or having sex with a condom. Why do it if there’s no good reason?
Beer is beer. What different styles are called is sometimes a matter of debate. When gunk sinks to the bottom during brewing it’s lager, and if it floats to the top it’s ale. Certain dark ales are known as porters, and the darkest and creamiest porters are called stouts. Don’t drink from a bottle. Guinness is good for you.