FES three different ways

The arrival of increasing numbers of African immigrants to the UK in the 1990s meant that demand sprang up for Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, the strong (7.5 per cent ABV) version of Dublin’s black brew, which is made in breweries across Africa, and is one of the biggest selling beer brands on the continent. Guinness had never sold FES in the UK (or Ireland), except briefly (under the name XXX) in the 1970s, but by the mid-1990s it was available in Britain, where it competed with “grey” imports of FES from Nigeria for the immigrant trade.

One of the unique aspects of FES is that it is brewed using a special roast barley, malt and hops concentrate, deeply black and amazingly bitter, invented in the early 1960s by Guinness scientists, and originally called Concentrated Mature Beer. Now, under the name Guinness Flavour Extract, it is sent out from Ireland to the 50 or so breweries around the world that brew FES, where it is added at the rate of two per cent GFE to 98 per cent pale locally brewed beer. The boom in Guinness FES sales around the world meant that in 2003 Guinness decided it could not make enough GFE in Dublin, and refitted the former Cherry’s brewery in Mary Street, Waterford to make six million litres of GFE a year, using 9,000 tonnes of barley.

Today, while FES is still imported from Dublin, the Nigerian version is now legitimately available here via proper import channels – with the result that you can find the Dublin version in Sainsbury’s, while Tesco has versions brewed in Nigeria. I say “versions”, because a study of the back labels shows there appear to be two different sorts of Nigerian FES. Both use sorghum, a traditional African grain (used to make traditional African beers), at the insistence of the Nigerian government, which wanted locally-grown produce in locally brewed and sold beer: you can’t grow barley in Nigeria. However, alongside the sorghum, some bottles of Nigerian FES in Tesco say they also contain wheat, while others say they contain maize.

A comparative taste test showed definite differences in three at first sight very similar beers. – and not just on the outside. The three bottles are identical, except that the two from Nigeria both have a small red flash on the front label at the bottom saying “Imported”, and on inspection the back labels are interestingly different. The one from Ireland says this is indeed brewed in Ireland by Guinness & Co Ltd ,St James’s Gate, and contains barley, is 7.5% ABV, and holds 33cl.

The first Nigerian one says “Stout imported from Nigeria for it’s [sic – problem with the grammar there, lads] unique taste”, and “originally brewed, blah blah, special recipe, since 1759”. (I don’t think so ….Arthur Guinness began brewing in Dublin in 1759, but he only started brewing porter around 1775 and Extra Stout first appeared only in the first decade of the 19th century) The back label of the first Nigerian FES also says the beer “contains wheat and barley”, the bottle holds 325ml (why 5ml less than the Irish one?), and in tiny letters, the name of the importer, a breakdown of proteins and calories and “brewed under licence by Guinness Nigeria”. Ingredients are given as water, malt, sorghum, wheat, barley, hops. The second bottle says: “contains malt, sorghum, maize, hops, barley”. Same importers, brewed in the same place, but one has maize, the other wheat.

The Irish-brewed FES, opens with a slight aroma immediately evident, good instant lively head with a lovely coffee-creamy colour, very typical coffee/sour-antiseptic Brett/bitter/roast barley flavours, and a long, long aftertaste. Very satisfying.

The wheat Guinness has a slightly more acidic nose, a rather more violent head, not as solid-looking or firm as the Irish version, a lot of bubbles in the glass, slightly sweeter and with less depth and a thinner mouth-feel. There’s a definite “baked apples” flavour to the wheat one, the whole chocolate/coffee/toffee theme is much more lower key than in the Irish brewed version, and the wheat-brewed FES also has a much more shallow aftertaste, but with good roast barley flavours coming through powerfully.

The maize version has a much creamier, very tight head, with ethyl-ey “paint” aromas on the nose. It’s creamier and lighter in the mouth, pear and apple more dominant in this one, and again there’s less length in the finish. The Nigerian pair are both good beers, but ultimately neither is as fine as the Irish bottle, which is a world classic, and a beer I would be happy to drink on almost any occasion..

Why was the Dublin one so much better? My suspicion is that this is the only one where Brettanomyces infection has been allowed to develop in the aged beer before it was blended with newer stout and bottled. The Brett yeast, traditionally found in “stock” or aged beers, gives depth of flavour and that “antiseptic” note (sometimes also described as “farmyardy” or “horse blanket”, although, having never sniffed a horse blanket I can’t confirm that …) that is the hallmark of well-matured ale. Whatever, it’s a top-ten beer.

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