It's been almost a year since my boyfriend and I set off from under the shadow of Croagh Patrick in rain coats and padded shorts, laden down with homemade soda bread and a tent, to cycle the width of Ireland all the way back to Dublin, just days after both the centenary of the Easter Rising and St. Patrick's Day.
My boyfriend is pretty Irish. Both sides of his family are from the same county in the West of Ireland, his hair turns to copper in the sun, and his mother drinks Guinness when she's ill instead of taking tablets. But it was my idea to cycle the width of the country, with nothing but a variety of rubber and Nylon to keep us dry, moving, and warm.
Scroll forward to 2017 and you will find the same pair, sitting at a plywood table in London, wearing grey tracksuit bottoms and a pair of pyjamas that look like a 1970s Everton kit, sipping their way through five different types of stout.
You see, Guinness isn't quite the Irish extravaganza their owner, Diageo, may wish you to imagine. Guinness is actually brewed in almost 50 countries and is available in over 100, most notably Nigeria, the West Indies, Malaysia, and Sierra Leone. Guinness Foreign Extra Stout is sold in Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, Asia, and the United States. And, while we're at it, the godfather of stout, Arthur Guinness, was hardly a rampant Irish nationalist. According to The Economist (and who am I to argue), Guinness was a committed unionist and opponent of Irish nationalism. His company "was alleged to have lent men and equipment to the British army to help crush Irish rebels during the Easter Rising of 1916." Eesh.
But, of course, Guinness has been pumping out of Dublin since 1759. That's 39 years before Wolfe Tone led his protest against British rule in Ireland, now often referred to as the Irish Rebellion. And, what with the harp motif as modelled on the Trinity College Harp from 1862 and the incredible rate at which Guinness is sold in Ireland to this day (even though Guinness didn't own any pubs for its first 127 years of trading), you can see why the drink has now become synonymous with St. Patrick's Day.
I was interested to test the classic draught Guinness against some of the more exotic, even international incarnations of water, grain, malt, and yeast; to see just what difference there is (if any) between Guinness Extra Stout, Guinness Foreign Extra, and, say, Jamaican Dragon Stout. And so, at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, I strolled up the road to a Hackney off-licence and bought all three, plus a Super Malt and a can of Guinness. Children were only just coming out of school and babies went by in their buggies. The man behind the counter barely flickered a nose hair.
Since the early 90s, Guinness in a can has come with a widget (originally developed in 1988) which, supposedly, gives you a pub head without having to actually cover your arse and leave the house. I notice, as I pour, that there is a Guinness Draught Stout Helpline advertised on the side of my can. God knows what kind of an emergency you'd have to be in to call them. Short of pouring it into an open wound, I can't really think what part Guinness could have to play in a domestic drama inducing a helpline.
"You're meant to drink Guinness like this," advises my boyfriend, tipping his elbow at right angle to his hand, his forearm a dead level from nostril height. He looks ridiculous. "Then you push your lip under the head and take a sip."
The taste is pretty much exactly as I remember it, if a little more watery. There's that classic bitter, sweet, malty taste—like the smell round the back door of a biscuit factory.
Next we try the Guinness Original XX. According to the dreadful copywriting on the side of the can, "If you were in a pub sometime between 1821 and 1970, chances are this is the Guinness you would have been drinking." Sure. Rightio. If you were drinking Guinness between 1821 and 1970, you might well have been drinking it in 1962, in the newly-independent Nigeria, which opened the first Guinness brewery outside of Ireland and Great Britain in Lagos. You may also have been drinking it Kuala Lumpur, where Guinness' first Malaysian brewery opened in 1965. But, tonight, we're in London, where "porter," the drink from which Guinness originated was actually invented. The Guinness Original XX has a darker head—more beige than white, and is fizzier, beerier. I like it, but then I'm a sucker for beige.
Next up is the Guinness Foreign Extra. According to Helen Thompson, writing in the Smithsonian, "The vast majority of Guinness consumed in Africa is called Foreign Extra Stout. It's essentially the same beer that Guinness began exporting to the far reaches of the British Empire in the 18th century […] first to England, and then abroad to Barbados, Trinidad, and the British Colony of Sierra Leone." By 1827 the "West Indies Porter" had reached West Africa. In short, "wherever the British Empire established colonies or stationed soldiers, Guinness shipped their beer."
By this point in proceedings, I comfort myself with the thought that (at least, according to something I read on the Internet) Guinness only contains 198 calories per imperial pint—slightly fewer than skimmed milk, orange juice, and most other non-light beers. My mother, incidentally, drank Guinness when she was breastfeeding, as do a number of my child-rearing friends today, which is precisely their choice. Anyway, according to the Guinness website, Guinness Foreign Extra Stout was "originally brewed to withstand long journeys," so "the use of higher gravity and more hops resulted in a bold tasting beer with a complex flavour profile." Guinness Extra Foreign Stout drunk in African bars is often brewed with maize or sorghum, instead of barley, and comes in at a riotous 7.5-percent ABV. This is, to my palate, far heavier, thicker—more like the Guinness I remember drinking beside the canal in Abbeyshrule halfway through our bike ride across Ireland.
Nigeria also produces Malta Guinness, a malt drink brewed with sucrose, maize, sorghum, barley, caramel, hops, water, "several vitamins and minerals" that is said by the owners to "fuel your rise everyday, everywhere." Sadly, this isn't available yet in Hackney. At least, not at the top of my road.
It was now time to turn my attention to that other famous stout: Jamaica's Dragon Stout, brewed in Kingston and imported to Britain by Heineken. Dragon Stout pours out, looking like cola—much fizzier, fruitier, more saccharine. In fact, while trying to describe the vaguely aspartame taste, my boyfriend likens it to Diet Pepsi. The ingredients include, I note, "ammonia caramel" and malted barley. It's delicious, but a very different drink to Guinness. Not just a Lidl version of the real deal, but its very own beverage—more tangy, more sweet, and a little more acidic. Still, at 7.5-percent ABV I only have a quarter of a glass. I'm not quite ready to get St. Patrick's Day shitfaced, at home, on a Tuesday night.
To sober up, and because I've been living in London for long enough to understand the ubiquity of this orange, maroon, and white label, I move on finally to Supermalt. Let me say here that I bloody love Supermalt. It's like the teenage older sister to Horlicks—dressed like a beer, tasting like the inside of a Malteser. The ingredients are similar to Guinness (barley malt, sugar, water, and carbon dioxide) but the result is non-alcoholic, smooth, and very sweet. My boyfriend likens it to dandelion and burdock, while I take to the sofa to air my CO2-swollen belly.
I may not have broken any Guinness World Records this St. Patrick's Day (an idea that dates back to 1925, when the managing director of Guinness commissioned a book of facts and figures designed to settle all pub arguments) but I have made a bloody big dent in the malt and barley reserves of East London.
For my money, Guinness Original XX, Foreign Extra, the classic Draught, and Dragon Stout are all very different beasts that will appeal to you, not really out of taste, but for reasons of nostalgia, design, national identity, self image, and, basically, marketing. You may see yourself as a 1920s Dublin fighter or a Jamaican rude boy; a Nigerian businessman or a 90s London advertising executive. Whatever the reason, you'll drink your drink and tell yourself that it tastes just like it ought to.
If St. Patrick's Day—the feast day of a British saint, born under Roman rule, shipped to Ireland as a slave, who then fled back to the part of either England, Scotland, or Wales where he came from—is about anything, then it's about migration. About faith, journeys, the movement of people, and identity. So, drink what you like, sing what you like, wear what you like—we're all friends here.