With St. Patrick’s Day upon us the popularity of Irish stouts reaches a zenith. An estimated 13,000,000 pints of Guinness are sold worldwide every St. Patty’s Day. Anyone reading a beer blog will be very familiar with Ireland’s most popular export, but what you may not know is that Guinness Draught, the beer that is synonymous with Irish stouts, is a mid-20th century invention. The magic trick of pressurizing and dispensing with a mixture of nitrogen and carbon dioxide was not introduced until 1959, the brewery’s 200th birthday. The use of nitrogen, which accounts for three-quarters or more of the mixture and is 50 times less soluble in water than carbon dioxide, is responsible for spectacle of the Guinness surge, the ultra-creamy mouthfeel, and the low-levels of dissolved carbon dioxide that allow the malts to shine. Nitrogenation is not the only way in which Guinness changed over the course of the twentieth century. In the old days Guinness Stout was a blend of “old” beer, aged for many months in large wooden vats at St. James Gate, and younger more highly carbonated beer. This approach dates back to the practices used to make London porter, which was the staple of the brewery for many years. If you want to taste a beer that has a connection to the way Guinness was once made, you’ll need to climb the ladder to the strongest stout in the Guinness family, the Foreign Extra Stout. In celebration of St. Patrick’s Day that’s exactly what we are going to do today.
- Brewery: Guinness (Dublin, Ireland)
- Style: Irish Foreign Extra Stout
- ABV: 7.5%
- Package: 4 pack of 12 oz bottles
The lineage of Foreign Extra Stout traces back to an earlier Guinness product called West Indies Porter, first released in 1801. The original name highlights a somewhat counterintuitive fact – this dark, strong, burly beer has long been a favorite in the Caribbean, Africa, and other tropical locales. If you are accustomed to the ubiquitous Guinness Draught you’ll have to recalibrate your expectations. Because the beer historically spent 4-5 weeks in the hold of a ship traveling through tropical waters, it is brewed both stronger and more highly hopped. The abv is almost double that of Guinness Draught (7.5% vs 4.2%) and the beer is pressurized in the normal fashion, with CO2 instead of nitrogen. I should also point out that while it may be easy to track down in Kingston, Nassau, or Lagos, it is not available anywhere in Central Ohio. To get some for the most recent episode of the All Things Beer Podcast (Episode 34 – Irish Stouts), I had to make a trip down to Cincinnati where it is available in multiple outlets (Guinness has a beer finder app on their website that you may find useful if this review motivates you to seek out some FES).
Like all the stouts in the Guinness family the Foreign Extra Stout is dark, close to jet black in color, and almost completely opaque. It’s topped with a creamy, mocha colored head that ranges from an inch to one-third of the pint glass depending on how its poured. The head retention is excellent, perhaps due to the use of unmalted barley, and after what seems like eternity (but was probably only 3 minutes) the head has settled down to a point where I can go in for a sip. The smell is chocolate-forward, but with a hard to describe dairy like sweetness, a combination that suggests milk chocolate. The flavor profile is an intense marriage of bittersweet chocolate and espresso-like roastiness. The combination of stiff hopping and highly roasted barley lends a bitterness that is pretty assertive, especially when the beer is colder. Subtle fruity esters and perhaps a tinge of acidity that lurk underneath the potent roast onslaught give the beer a slightly vinous character. The mouthfeel is thick and creamy, with very little in the way of prickly carbonation. For a big, thick stout the finish is surprisingly dry and clean, a result no doubt of the liberal hopping schedule.
Whereas Guinness Draught is creamy easy drinking session beer (a crusher you might say), the Foreign Extra Stout is a sipper that demands your attention. Having experienced the FES on three different occasions over the past ten days I would strongly recommend letting the beer warm a bit from refrigerator temperatures before cracking it open. When it is served too cold some of the subtleties are lost and the roasty, hoppy bitterness is a bit too assertive for my delicate palate, but when served at the proper temperature it’s a treat. In searching out this beer I was very curious to see if I could find the acidity that people sometimes associate with it. At the turn of the 20th century this beer would have been bottle conditioned and there’s no doubt that wild yeast and bacteria living in the wooden vats would have contributed funkiness and a little acidic twang. In the modern day this beer is pasteurized not bottle conditioned, and while Guinness is notoriously tight-lipped about their ingredients and process, the wooden vats are no longer in use and I think it’s pretty safe to assume that brett is no longer part of the equation. I don’t know if the beer is still blended, but there is some complexity underneath the chocolate and espresso, and it’s not too hard to convince yourself that there might be a subtle kiss of lactic acidity. Why don’t you track down a bottle (if you can) and see for yourself. Slainte!
If you are interested in a much bigger helping of information on Irish stouts and Guinness download the latest episode of the All Things Beer podcast (Episode 34 – Irish Stouts) from the blog or from the usual podcast sources (Apple Music, Spotify, Podbean, etc.).
Rating scale: 10 = perfection, 9 = excellent, one of the top beers in the world, 8 = very good, one of the top beers in its style category, 7 = good, a solid beer I’m happy to be drinking, 6 = average, not bad but not something I’m likely to buy again, 5 = below average, 3-4 = poor, should be avoided, 1-2 drainpour.