The Hunting of the Stout

In February 1961, 47 years ago, Guinness paid the London brewer Watney Combe Reid £28,000 – equivalent to more than £400,000 today – to discontinue brewing its Reid’s Stout. It was part of the Irish firm’s drive to put its newly perfected nitrogen-serve Draught Guinness into as many pubs as possible: Watney’s also had a draught “container stout”, presumably using the keg system that powered Red Barrel, and the Dublin boys were happy to pay to eliminate this potential rival.

Reid’s, whose original brewery was in the aptly named Liquorpond Street, near Hatton Garden, before it merged with Watney and another London firm, Combe’s of Covent Garden, had been one of the great stout brewers of the 19th century, The journalist Alfred Barnard wrote in 1889: “Who has not heard of Reid’s stout? And what better accompaniment to a dozen of oysters could be found?”

With the demise of Reid’s, and all the other once-famous stout brewers of England’s capital, such as Meux, which once brought a beautiful aroma of malt and hops to delight passengers on the tops of buses at the corner of Tottenham Court Road and New Oxford Street, the title of “sole big stout brewer” fell to Guinness.

Effectively, the only sort of stout still brewed in England was the sweet Mackeson-style version that had become popular in the 20th century. London’s formerly enormous role as a centre for brewing the original, 19th century-style, stout became forgotten, so that Michael Jackson could assert, in his first Pocket Guide to Beer, published in 1982,

English stouts are sweet … Irish stouts are dry.”

Surviving English stouts were, in 1982, pretty much in the sweet Mackeson-type style only. That certainly hadn’t been true 20 or 30 years earlier.

But if Watney’s had turned down the Irish brewer’s money in 1961, and Reid’s had continued as a rival to Guinness, a living example of the beers once made by all the biggest London brewers, would we, today, be talking about “Irish stout” as the synonym of not-sweet stout? Is there actually such a thing as “Irish stout”? Would Guinness and Reid’s not be known as two examples of “stout”, geography unstated? If a tighter description were needed, to differentiate the Mackesons from those stouts not made with unfermentable lactic sugars, should it not be the retronym “dry stout”, to include all the English versions alas, no longer with us?

It looks, in fact, as if Watney’s did come to regret selling out Reid’s, since it twice later tried to challenge Guinness with a rival draught black beer. It launched the Cork-brewed “Colonel Murphy’s” in the UK in 1968, withdrawing it after just over a year, and in 1984 it came out with a cask-conditioned hand-pumped beer called, after another old London brewery it had taken over, Hammerton’s Porter. Hammerton’s was delicious where it was well looked after, but the demographic of draught Guinness drinkers did not overlap the demographic of cask-conditioned beer drinkers, and poor sales meant it disappeared as quickly as the Colonel 15 years earlier.

In fact there is a version of “London” stout still being brewed, in Belgium, by InBev, and sold under the name Whitbread Extra Stout. How is this 5.1 per cent abv beer described? Here are a couple of genuine comments culled off the web:

A good dry Guinness-type roasted stout”

“Une bière noire stout typiquement irlandaise Le goût torréfié et amer se révèle lors d’une persistance agréable.”

So a stout produced today using the name of another of London’s vanished big stout and porter brewers, and presumably made to the same recipe as it was when it was brewed in London, is described by modern drinkers as just like an Irish stout, with a “goût torréfié et amer” – a roasted, bitter flavour. More evidence, I’d suggest, that London and Irish stouts differed only in geographical origin.

This is not the site for giving the BCJP guidelines a good kicking – for that you want Patto’s blog. But the BCJP perpetuates the idea that “Irish Stout” is a qualitatively differentiated style, like Irish whiskey, and not just a geographical description, like Irish Cheddar. Its website insists that “dry stout” is “otherwise known as Irish stout or Irish dry stout”, and “the dryness comes from the use of roasted unmalted barley in addition to pale malt, moderate to high hop bitterness, and good attenuation.”

The idea that Irish stout was different from other types of stout because it contained roast barley, and this was/is what gives it a “unique” dry flavour has already been knocked on the head. Roast barley was a comparatively late introduction to the Guinness grain bill: since I wrote my last blog on the subject I’ve acquired a copy of the 1931 Guinness guidebook for visitors, and that’s the one which first mentions “roasted malt or barley” being used to make the company’s beers, while the 1928 edition lists only roasted malt as the article giving colour and flavour to the stout. So we can narrow down the likely date when Guinness first added roasted barley to its beers to around 1929/30, or 120 years or so after it first started making “a stouter kind of porter”.

(It may be significant that this happened just after the death in 1928 of Edward Guinness, first Earl of Iveagh, who had effectively controlled the company for the previous 60 years: had he stood out against using roasted barley and, after his death, did the “progressives” at St James’s Gate finally get its use approved?)

To state the case for the defence, a lengthy article in The Brewers’ Journal in June 1890 by Frank Faulkner, author of The Theory and Practice of Modern Brewing, who devotes some 5,000 words to the brewing of stout and porter, declares

… the black product of the Emerald Isle is totally different on palate to any that is met with in England, softness being a predominating characteristic, while sweetness is almost entirely absent.”

The reasons for the difference, Faulkner said, were the very soft water used by Irish brewers; their using pale malt plus six to eight per cent black or patent malt only, not the “some half dozen varieties of malt, pale and coloured”, plus sugar, used by English stout brewers; “pressure boiling” the wort, which, Faulkner said, guaranteed a good head on the beer; extended primary attenuation, to get as low a final gravity as possible; and “worting” the beer, otherwise known as kräusening or gyling, adding a small amount of fresh still-fermenting wort to the product just before it left the brewery to give it condition.

London stout brewers, on the other hand, Faulkner said, employed pale, brown and black “and in many cases crystal or amber” malts in making their stouts, generally in a ratio of eight or 10 per cent black and 12 to 25 per cent brown, with the rest “full-bodied pale”. In recent years, he said, the “monopolists” had also started using “black invert sugar of high-class quality” as a malt substitute. This meant the “London black beer producer” could carry out a speedier fermentation, and also “cask his product at a much higher range of gravity”, while “the main portion of it is consumed perfectly young and green” – and presumably comparatively unacidic and quite sweet.

This “green” beer, however, seems to be lower-gravity “3d pot” porter, all of 25 per cent cheaper than the standard “four-ale” mild. For “the superior kinds of stout and coating porter”, Faulkner says, the product is vatted before being casked, and undergoes a secondary fermentation in the cask, “although this cannot possibly be so pronounced as in the case of the competition Irish article.”

If we accept Faulkner’s argument that the pale malt-plus-black malt Irish stouts were indeed “totally different” from their London rivals with their more complex grain bills, then we end up with three different styles of stout: “dry” Irish stout, a more “full” London stout and the sweet Mackeson-style stouts that came along around 20 years after Faulkner wrote his Brewers’ Journal article. (Note, incidentally, that Faulkner doesn’t mention roasted barley anywhere …)

But I have hunted through a considerable number of books on brewing and beer over the past few weeks, and I have failed to find a single reference apart from Faulkner in the 1890s and Michael Jackson in the 1970s to the idea that Irish stouts could or should be differentiated by consumers from London’s classic stouts of the kind Reid, Meux, Whitbread, Barclay Perkins and the rest produced. The typical sort of comment from a brewer is one I’ve quoted in the past from Herbert Lloyd Hind’s Brewing: Science and Practice, published in 1938, which says:

There are a number of distinct types of stout and porter, for which different blends of materials are used. On the one hand, are the stouts brewed from malt only, or from malt and roasted barley, On the other are the sweeter stouts, for which a fairly high percentage of sugar is employed.”

no mention of Irish or English there, just the split into “ordinary” and “sweet”.

A little booklet on beer produced in 1956 by the now-vanished men’s magazine Lilliput lists almost 50 different stouts from British and Irish brewers, of which not quite half are marked as “sweet”, including Mackeson (and one from Beasley’s brewery in Plumstead, London called “Arsenal” – named for the nearby Royal Woolwich Arsenal). London-brewed stouts that were, like Guinness, not marked as “sweet” included three from Watney’s, Hammerton’s, Reid’s Special (described elsewhere as “rather bitter”) and Export; one from Whitbread; one from Taylor Walker; one from Mann’s in the East End, Cream Label; and one from Barclay Perkins, Velvet Stout (not to be confused with the “sweet” Velvet Stout brewed by Simonds of Reading.)

The result of this “hunting of the stout”, therefore, is that, like Lewis Carroll’s Snark the idea of Irish stout being a separate, distinctive category has “softly and suddenly vanished away “, the Boojum, in this case, being the generality of unsweetened stouts, of which Guinness, like D’Arcy, Findlaters, Murphy’s and the other versions brewed across the Irish Sea, were examples just exactly the same as Reid’s, Whitbread’s, Meux’s and the other London brewers, and indeed those unsweetened stouts made in places such as Luton, Tadcaster and Sunderland. “Irish stout”, I’d suggest, has no meaning other than “stout brewed in Ireland”.

If, like Faulkner, you accept that Irish stout was different, because of its simpler grain bill and complete absence of sweetness, to the stout produced in London, it is still clear that London stout was nothing like the sweet Mackeson-style stouts made with a proportion of lactic sugars. In that case there are three historic types of stout, Irish, London and sweet – though since drinkers seem to put the flavour of Whitbread Extra Stout in with Irish-style stouts, it seems to me that Irish and London are all one category of “dry” stout.

It might be going too far, judging by what Faulkner says to argue that “Irish” is no more a proper name for a stout style than it is for a cheddar cheese style. However, it is certainly the case that “Irish stout” is not a synonym or catch-all for the “dry stout” category, and London stout needs considerably more recognition.

22 thoughts on “The Hunting of the Stout

  1. Good stuff again. I hadn’t known about Guinness paying to kill of Reid’s Stout.

    I agree completely about the distinction between “dry” Irish and “sweet” English Stout being made up after the fact. I’ve found plenty of examples of both sweet and dry English Stouts in the Whitbread gravity book.

    There was a significant change in the degree of attenuation of Guinness around 1950. Before that date it was in the range 72-75%. After 1950, it increased to between 81% and 86%. That must have had an impact on the character of the finished beer.

    I have photos of some Whitbread Stout brewing logs from the 1950’s. I’ll have a look and see how sweet or dry it was and get back to you.

  2. No, but there ain’t no pale malt in there, assuming (as I think we can) M.A. stands for Mild Ale malt – 16 per cent of brown and chocolate malt would give a pretty dark beer, and at least two of the sugars are No 3, the dark variety …

  3. I’m pretty sure the M.A. stands for Mild Ale, too.

    I hadn’t really looked at this log in detail before. I was surprised to see no black malt or roast barley. You have to go back to the 1840’s to find London Porter or Stout without either. I’m not doubting it would be dark, just that it wouldn’t be roasty.

    The more I look at it, the more interesting the recipe looks. You never know, I might one day get the 1952 Extra Stout brewed.

  4. Thanks for a wonderful ‘article’, or is that post? Who knows what would have happened if Watneys hadn’t taken the money? Great to speculate. As a teenager I progressed from GK Harvest (sweet brown ale) onto their Farm Stout. Only ever available in bottles and now long gone. I think there is a place for the ‘sweet’ stout.

  5. Mmmm, Farm Stout – originally brewed by the very much lamented Rayment’s of Pelham, and as you correctly say, Paul, a delicious sweet stout – beter than Mackeson, I thought, with a terrific caramelly flavour.

  6. From research and practice experience Ive found that the same recipe brewed in London and Dublin will finish quite different. Traditionally, the massive carbonates in Irish/dublin water REALLY dry out the finish of beers with roasty character, namely stouts. Its really hard to tell this commercially anymore. Even Guinness brewed in Dublin isn’t the same as it used to be. They take nearly everything out of the water before they brew with it only adding back what they believe they need. This is becoming more and more the case with bigger breweries.

    1. I have to agree with you Kristen England about the taste of Guinness today with the Dublin product of the late 70’s early 80’s. In those days, the London Guinness to me lacked the quality of the Dublin product. Today the taste is a little bland to what it used to be, Now seek out the micro brewers products for the variety of finishes to stouts. Samuel Smiths of Tadcaster have a good range of porters and stouts to my liking.

  7. But the BCJP perpetuates the idea that “Irish Stout” is a qualitatively differentiated style, like Irish whiskey, and not just a geographical description, like Irish Cheddar.

    I’d have to argue that one. How exactly is Irish whiskey qualitatively different from Scotch whisky? Triple distillation? Connemara isn’t, and Auchentoshan is. Raw barley in the mash? Only at Midleton. No peat? Plenty of Speysides with no peat, and again, Connemara uses peated malt. Irish whiskey is whiskey made in Ireland. No problem with that, myself: I love them. But where do you put the finger on that qualitative difference?

  8. I think there’s a definite sense that for the whisk/e/y drinker “Irish” means something different from “Scotch”, with the implication that Irish whiskey will be smoother and lighter, which will be down to those differences usually associated with the making of Irish whiskey against Scotch, that is, triple distilling and so on, and while you can find exceptions to the rules, such as double-distilled “boutique” whiskeys in Ireland like Connemara, even in the “mass market” brands you could tell, say, Bell’s as representing something different to Paddy. But I’m prepared to be told that I’m wrong, particularly as I hardly ever drink Irish whiskey and generally stick to just a couple of favourite Scotches …

  9. I wish I knew more about historic Irish distilling practices.

    I will readily admit that Connemara and the rest of the Cooley output is dwarfed by Midleton and Bushmills. But “exceptions to the rules” seems perhaps a bit too dismissive when neither of us knows how far back the triple-distillation tradition goes. For the record, if you ask the three Irish distillers the same question — “What makes Irish whiskey different?” — you’ll get three different answers: I’ve talked to all three within the past year. But the one that comes closest is the subjective sense that it is smoother and more floral/fruity than Scotch whisky. One distiller suggested that the damp, temperate climate had something to do with it; another that Irish distillers focus more on preserving fermentation characteristics.

    As usual — happily — more research is needed.

  10. The Czech dark beer style called Tmavy reminds me of the English stouts I have had in the past. My whine is that they add artificial sweeteners to too many of the dark beers here, get over this (find ones that don’t) and they are excellent.
    Like the Blog, came here via Prague Monitor. Thx.

  11. What about export Stout?

    Also, I can’t help but notice the Anglocentric view of Stout on this blog. Perhaps I’m reading too much into things. The elephant in the room seems to be Guinness Draught. Isn’t this watered-down, low gravity version of historical stout something that originated at St James Gate, and doesn’t it singularly define “stout” for most people over the past couple of generations?

  12. Well, yes, of course there’s an Anglocentric view of stout on this blog, that’s because I’m based in England, almost all my sources are English, English beer is what I’m most interested in, and I’m not so arrogant that I think I can write about stout in other countries with any real authority.

    I’d agree that to most drinkers today, certainly in the UK, and probably in the US/North America, Guinness and stout are interchangeable terms, but I’m not sure that, worldwide, Guinness Draught is the epitome: Guinness FES has a considerable following in Africa (especially West and South Africa) and the Far East, and we’re talking there about a drink far, far closer, in strength and taste, to 19th century Guinness than Draught Guinness is.

    Nor do I think that you can say the “modern” version of stout “originated” at St James’ Gate: Beamish and Murphys in Cork developed almost identical offerings in response to the same pressures, of tax and demand from consumers for lower gravity black beers.

    1. Thanks for the response. I just realized that I had somehow stumbled on a 3 year old post of yours. This website is a bit like wikipedia in that way.

      It may be presumptuous of me to assume that Guinness invented that type of stout. I think it’s likely that some Irish brewery did, but even that might be hard to pin down since historical records on Irish breweries seem to be somewhat hard to fine (from what I’ve gleaned from Ron Pattinson’s writing on the subject)

  13. “Hammerton’s was delicious where it was well looked after, but the demographic of draught Guinness drinkers did not overlap the demographic of cask-conditioned beer drinkers, and poor sales meant it disappeared…”
    I remember driving all around West London in search of Watney’s pubs that served Hammerton’s Porter. It was a delightful drop and I was really sad when it was terminated. I still have a pump clip for the beer.
    (And before you ask, yes, that was the only time I actively sought out Watney’s pubs!)

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