The black stuff

by Steve Renshaw

I was delighted to read Caroline Wilson’s “Never tried…Real ale” article in the New Year’s Day edition of the Echo. CAMRA has been extolling the virtues of cask-conditioned beer since the early 1970s, but we’re not stuck in a time warp. We celebrate the variety of wonderful ales that are available these days, and it’s great to see younger drinkers of both sexes appreciating them.

At this time of year, ale drinkers often look for something a little darker and stronger to ward off the cold of a winter’s evening. And one of the classic dark beer styles is stout.

Stouts evolved from porter, a London style that turned the brewing industry upside down early in the 18th century. It was a dark brown beer that was originally a blend of brown ale, pale ale and “stale” or well-matured ale. It acquired its name as a result of its popularity among London’s street-market workers. (For much of the 20th century, porter was extinct as a style, but it’s been revived as part of Britain’s ongoing beer revolution.)

At the time, a generic term for the strongest beer in a brewery was stout.  Eventually the name stout porter was shortened to stout. There are numerous kinds of stout but the best known is the Irish dry stout, popularised by Guinness.

Arthur Guinness started brewing in Dublin in 1759. Vast quantities of porter and stout were flooding into Ireland from London and Bristol, so Guinness decided to fashion his own interpretation of the styles. He blended some unmalted, roasted barley and, in so doing, produced the first dry Irish stout.

During the First World War, the British government banned the use of dark, highly-kilned malts to conserve energy. As a result, Irish brewers were able to corner the market for dark beers. By the end of the war, the Guinness brewery was the largest in the world.

Guinness ceased production of cask-conditioned beer in the 1960s. In the 1970s, sales declined as lager took over the world and drinkers shied away from dark beers. The response from Guinness was to change the recipe and reduce the strength to increase the beer’s appeal. The traditional, roasted bitterness has been reduced, and any harsh notes that remain are masked by the low temperature of service. In addition, the injection of nitrogen not only produces the characteristic creamy head but also reduces the acidity of the carbon dioxide added at dispense.

Guinness is now brewed in almost 60 countries and is available in over 120. But it’s arguable whether it would have been so successful were it not for the slick advertising since its re-launch in 1981. The marketing has been successful in turning Guinness into a cult beer throughout the world.

It’s an interesting story – but it’s not real ale! So I’m off in search of a proper dark beer. And I find one at the ever-popular Jolly Brewer, where Welbeck Abbey Portland Black is a regular on the pumps. The Nottinghamshire brewery’s porter is CAMRA’s current champion winter beer for the East Midlands and goes forward to the finals at next month’s National Winter Ales Festival in Derby.

And what about the beer? Welbeck Abbey Portland Black (4.5% ABV) is a rich and smooth black beer. It has a distinctly vanilla nose and subtle smoke, liquorice and burnt toffee flavours. It certainly tastes like a champion to me.