Friday, June 12, 2009

Yesterday's gone

OK, time to cop to something.

Yes, calling Guinness a "yesteryear" beer was a dig at the beer. Sort of.

This comes up by way of email from a former co-worker (from our days at the sweatshop AP news bureau in Trenton) who asked if the Campaign for New Jersey Beer post of Thursday took a swipe at Guinness.

Again, yes. Sort of.

Guinness still tastes good (try the 250th anniversary edition; it's rich and tasty). And in those bars that Rick Reed and other Jersey brewers legitimately complain about, Guinness is a good buy when all the other options are Coors Light, Bud, Michelob Ultra (as in ultra bland) ... The list goes on.

Samuel Adams falls into the same cateogry, a good pint when the rest of the taps aren't worth wasting the calories on. (Jim Koch and Boston Beer, however, deserve a pass. The Samuel Adams brand clearcut the forest to make the road toward better beers, if not proving that you can become the next era of brewing in markets homogenized by Bud, Coors and Miller.)

So why, then, is Guinness yesteryear?

It's a generational thing. Guinness had cult-like status in the late 1980s, early 1990s in several parts of New Jersey. At that time, few bars went to the trouble to deal with that nitrogen-dispensed draft system that allowed Guinness its dense, creamy head and smooth texture. Why bother if you could count your Guinness customers on one hand?

One of the bars in our area, during our Asbury Park Press days, that did go to the trouble was the Drafting Table in Bradley Beach, where you could find Guinness on tap almost 20 years ago. And if memory serves, the Drafting Table occasionally had John Courage Amber on draft, too, a rather inviting British beer at the time.

It doesn't seem like much to sing the praises of either now, given that you can easily get your hands on a fat, heavy bottle of Kasteel Donker, if you're willing to part with 9 bucks. But in 1990, it was a big deal to shift from Heineken to darker beers without having to pass through the doors of a knowledgeable packaged goods store. And it's worth pointing out, too, that at this time, Samuel Adams wasn't a sure thing to find on tap. Or in even bottles behind the bar.

So, indeed, you were hip back then if you even liked Guinness; hipper still if you knew the flavor difference between Guinness on draft and Guinness Extra Stout in the bottle (draft was smoother, thanks to the nitrogen; bottled Extra was a different animal – the fizzy carbonation made the roasted and black patent malts more prickly, almost harsh on the palate). You were a trendsetter if you knew of bars that went the extra mile to carry Guinness on draft.

And Guinness was cool. The John Gilroy advertising illustrations from the 1930s, featuring the menagerie of zoo animals, now played to a new generation in the 1990s on glassware and T-shirts. A former Asbury Park Press co-worker even visited the Guinness brewery in Dublin, returning with gifts for fellow Guinness drinkers, while yet another former co-worker regaled us with tales of pubcrawling in Ireland.

What changed things?

The microbrewing industry finally caught up to New Jersey in the mid-90s. That and Jim Koch challenged you to step up to flavor. And there was portable draft Guinness, the four-pack of cans (those bottles of Guinness draft didn't hit the area market until about 2000-01). Guinness finally found a wider fan base. More taphandles too. Exponentially more compared to 1990. Guinness in the bar and grill these days is as common as salt shakers on the tables, and noticeably absent if it's not on tap. Or at least in cans behind the bar.

Some of that hipness has been lost to time and the increased ranks (see what we mean by generational). And these days, there are plenty of reasons to explore other beers, like that oatmeal cookie stout Triumph occasionally brews – and pours under nitrogen. It's an exceptionally well-done beer.

So is Guinness yesteryear? Respectfully, yes, when the landscape is dotted with so many beer choices, whether from breweries native to the home state (this is a Jersey-centric blog) or the surrounding environs.

But nonetheless, Guinness is still in our fridge. Probably always will be.


Anonymous said...

But I only started drinking (legally) in '96, so it's still "new" to me.

In any event, thanks for the clarification.

Former AP Sweatshopper

Thomas Pluck said...

A fine post. Guinness is still worth respect. When I discovered microbrews and locals I shunned my old friend; when I went to Ireland, I found Guiness and Smithwick's better than THEIR microbrews. And a fresh pint here still tastes great. The 250 I had jut the other night, and it is respectfully the best combo of the Extra Stout and Draught's qualities.

I disrespected Sam Adams for a while. A visit to their brewery and a sampling of their varieties changed my mind. Their flagship lager may not be the best, but it paved the way to see names other than Bud & Coors on the tap handles, and for that we owe it endless respect.