If you came of drinking age in a certain era, Guinness Draught was quite likely the first good beer you ever had. As recently as a decade ago, it was common to walk into a middle-of-the-road American bar and be confronted with a tap list featuring Shit, Shit Light, Shit Ice, Lemon-Lime Shit, Cider Shit If You’re Lucky, and Guinness.
That is almost never the case anymore. Although the Shit family still dominates our national beerscape, most bars now augment the macro-trash with, at a bare minimum, Sierra Nevada, Samuel Adams, Lagunitas, or a local variant. Guinness is no longer the default order for a tasteful beer-drinker looking to avoid the corny yellow fizz. Now that drinkers have to opt in to a pint of the world’s most iconic stout rather than merely fall into one while opting out of terrible beer, Guinness sales are sliding.
This isn’t the marketplace repudiating Guinness so much as it’s a natural reaction to the overwhelming breadth of craft beer choices. Guinness is good! But damn, man, so are several thousand other beers. You add in the factors that Guinness is owned by an international conglomerate (Diageo) and that Americans just don’t drink a lot of stout (MarketWatch reports the style accounts for between 2 and 3 percent of overall craft sales), and Guinness’s fall was inevitable.
But just because the flagship product falls doesn’t mean a brewery can’t climb back up by learning new tricks. Boston Beer Company, the parent of Samuel Adams Boston Lager, has stayed relevant by introducing the wildly successful Rebel IPA line at a time when sales for their erstwhile main brew are waning (it also doesn’t hurt that Boston Beer owns Angry Orchard cider). And though Sierra Nevada’s classic Pale Ale is still their top seller, they’ve also been aggressive about introducing new styles to keep up with the curve. Guinness has been similarly open to trying new things, with the significant difference that they’re not very good at it.
Guinness Black Lager was met with relative indifference when it debuted in 2010, and last year’s Blonde Lager gambit was widely derided. This fall they’re trotting out Guinness Nitro IPA, which is a naked capitulation to the current state of the American high-end beer market, for sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s an inherently bad idea. People like IPAs, and people like nitrogenated beers, which pour relatively flat with thick, creamy heads, as opposed to the bubbly character common to traditional carbon dioxide–charged beers.
I don’t care for the effect nitro has on hop-forward beers, as the enhanced chewiness and lack of carbonic acid combine to mask the bitterness of the hops; the whole affair becomes dull and muted. Roasted malt is less affected, which is why nitro works for stouts. But that’s just my personal bias. Nitro IPAs are rising in popularity, and Samuel Adams is threatening to spring a new line of nitro-juiced non-stouts on us in a few months. So, again, the idea of a Guinness Nitro IPA isn’t doomed out of the gate. If done right, it could appeal to—or at least not offend—traditional Guinness Draught fans, who are among the more loyal and conservative beer drinkers I’ve met, while winning new customers who are drawn to the magical IPA label and susceptible to Guinness’s reputation and marketing muscle.
Guinness Nitro IPA is 5.8 percent alcohol-by-volume, which is on the light side for a modern IPA, but still much higher than the Draught’s 4.2 percent. That’s a tricky spot for a big-brand beer looking to rely on high-volume sales, as it’s too potent to qualify as a session beer, but not strong enough to attract the bang-for-buck crowd.
It’s also not nearly bitter enough to impress the American IPA mob, as the mix of Admiral, Celeia, Challenger, Admiral, and Topaz hops qualify it as “hoppy, for Guinness,” but I’m not sure that was the goal. The hops do produce a nice floral and lemon scent under the medium-roasted barley, and I absolutely think this qualifies as a “real” IPA, but it’s not a particularly good one. The only major points of distinction are the nitro-boosted foam, which I predict is going to turn off as many people as it appeals to, and the Guinness name, which no longer means what it used to (otherwise we wouldn’t be here in the first place).
I’m hesitant to predict sales in a country where Bud Light is still by far the most popular beer; there’s no accounting for bad taste. That said, I’m highly skeptical that this is going to be the magic beer that turns Guinness’s fortunes around. I can’t think of what specific appeal it’s going to have to any niche other than the people who figure they might as well try the new Guinness. Once.
This is Drunkspin Daily, the Concourse’s adequate source for booze news, reviews, and bullshit. We’ll be highlighting a beer a day in this space; please leave suggestions below.
Image by Jim Cooke.
Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and some of his closest friends have met Certified Cicerones. Find him on Twitter @WillGordonAgain.