the boy from the black stuff

How long since you had a pint of Guinness in a pub?

For non-beer nerds, the answer might be last night. Since you’re even reading this post, then like me you’re one of the afflicted and will be narrowing your eyes in distilled thought. 

I believe the last time I had one was in Barcelona in 2006. I wasn’t a beery person at the time, but would still have regarded Guinness as the default drink of discernment when all the alternatives were corporate Lager.

I’m clearer about the last time I had one in Britain: it was in London in St John’s Wood in a pub that used to be the Star but then became an estate agent and is now an eatery going under the excruciating title of Drunch. The inside was as dark as Guinness itself and so thick with cigarette smog you could’ve scooped a ploughline through it with a palm. I added to the blue cumuli by sparking up too. My fourteen-year habit finally came to an end in August of 2008 but I didn’t save any money – it was shortly afterwards that I took up professional drinking instead.

In 2007, Westminster City Council decided to bring in the smoking ban a month ahead of it being rolled out across Britain because it loves to posture and get itself in the tabloids. I was papped by a photographer for a leading newspaper as I drew on a snout outside the council offices with Jimmy – an old work mate. The image appeared in the national press. Our faces weren’t shown – just our stomachs and fingers gripping said coughing nails.

But I’ve digressed already. Back to the black stuff.

There are thousands of stouts and porters available now. Prior to my latest Guinness experience, I had this dry stout by Brew By Numbers – it was perfect.

Guinness is the first beer I ever enjoyed. Prior to that, I’d had some Lager and bitter from cans that tasted like sucking copper coins. One year two of my cousins came over from Belgium. The eldest was sixteen which would’ve put me at fourteen. He was used to just walking into shops and buying beer in Brussells (I’m not sure what the legal age over there was at the time). He simply wandered into our local petrol station and came out with two bottles of Guinness. 

The three of us scuttled down a side alley and the contraband was opened by knocking the caps off on the edge of a brick wall causing brown foam to erupt over the necks. We then poured the beer into our cupped hands. Why didn’t we just swig from the bottles? Because we were idiots – that’s why.

It didn’t taste like the metallic canned beer I’d sipped before. This was rich and milky and a bit like coffee cake. I used to lick the last wetness of Bailey’s Cream out of my mum’s shot glass as a nipper (no pun intended) and It reminded me a bit of the full-fat creaminess of that.

Guinness later became a part of growing up. Maybe because my taste buds were young with a residual fondness for sweets, Guinness always seemed really bitter. Finishing a pint always felt like an achievement. With my parents, we’d sometimes find pubs with Murphy’s on instead which seemed sweeter. We once went to the Vine in Clifton Hampden which had Beamish on tap. That tasted even more dry and acrid than Guinness. I’d be keen to find it again now.

Today I’ve gone for the standard British version rather than the “Extra Cold TM” variety.

Plonking it before me, I’m impressed with the head – it doesn’t budge. Regarding the beer’s colour, what I’ve always remembered as jet black is actually darkest crimson. The sip is cool but the taste is vague – somewhere between red liquorice and blueberries. Also, I don’t get any aftertaste and can’t detect any hop characteristic. Bitterness could only de discerned if you’d had something very sweet beforehand.

the badge from childhood

My mind takes me back to the red Slush Puppies. There used to be one of those magical machines in every corner shop, and god I’d love one of those in this swelter – I miss that little bonnet-clad dog!

There’s something else about this beer I don’t like and it takes me a little while to put my finger on it. It’s in the viscosity itself. The mouthfeel is malty but it clings afterwards and makes me think of Vaseline. Perhaps that’s too strong – more like the texture of the neon-pink spoonfuls of antibiotics I was forced to swallow as a child.

I find it’s on the sicklier side of sweet. The palate rings up not malt but dissolved sugar and that’s the association I finish with: brown demerera sugar. However, there is one final thing I’d forgotten about Guinness which now comes back to haunt me. I tip the glass virtually upside down so the head at the bottom slides reluctantly into my crop. It’s the tastiest bit. I used to avoid it but it now appeals to me. Oddly, it’s the only part that reminds me of how I used to experience Guinness.

There are other things I like too. Drinking cool beer through the static lather is satisfying. Watching the passage of the tiny nitrogen bubbles is hypnotic. I’m nostalgic for that swooping advertising campaign they did years ago with Louis Armstrong singing – it exploited the swirling depths of Guinness beautifully and has made me seek it out again on Youtube:


  1. When Heineken took over Beamish & Crawford in 2008 one of the first moves was to cease exporting Beamish so it’s probably quite hard to find in England now, unless it’s being brewed locally.

    Is “coughing nails” deliberate? That’s a quality eggcorn if not.

    • I don’t know. I’ve never been to Ireland to experience it so I’m never sure if its superiority is fact or nostalgia or somewhere in the middle.

  2. Tune in to much of that. In grim beer days of 70s to early 90s drank quite a lot of Guinness, as a dependable go to available in most pubs one didn’t know well, on entering and rolling eyes at the rest of their offerings. Remember Murphy’s had a spell of trying to compete seriously with Guinness in British market from around mid-80s into 90s after taken over by Heineken, and one saw it a lot, but never liked it – too sweet for me, which seem to recall was actually how they promoted it, so at least the warning was in the advertising. Of the three, Beamish was far and away my favourite. Could drink that for preference, not merely as a least worst option. Can’t pinpoint in my memory exactly when it was, but there was a short spell of a few years when, although still rarest of the three, one did come across it more than occasionally. It soon vanished again; perhaps too dry for the British stout market at that time? You’ll have to go to Ireland to find it again now. Heineken took that brewery over as well a decade ago, as part of their Scottish & Newcastle acquisition, shut it down, and moved Beamish production into their Murphy’s plant. They then decided not to distribute it outside Ireland, presumably as saw little point in having it compete with their much more heavily promoted Murphy’s brand.

    • I think I remember Beamish briefly in the widget hysteria of canned beer in the early nineties.I’d not thought of it much since writing the post. Their website tells you virtually nothing apart frpm the calories.

  3. Eggcorn … what can that possibly mean…?

    Coffin nails we called it, I think that is the original phrase.

    I liked Guinness in London recently, it seemed malty (though adjunct still there) and lightly smoky which it never is here.

    I didn’t get the fruity notes, will have to try again!


  4. Back in the early 90’s I preferred Beamish of the three. It was never as common as Guinness or Murphys, but it was served in the student union and a few pubs in Birmingham. Last year I found it in cans in Ireland and was disappointed with it. I didn’t see it on draft anywhere; even the Heineken owned bar I visited was serving Guinness.

    I have to say that the Guinness in Ireland was good, but I doubt it is much different to that in England. I think the idea that it is better in Ireland is a combination of history and romance; it probably was different in the past.

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