Guinness occupies its own weird niche in the beer world. It's owned by a gigantic international corporation (London-based Diageo) and is contract brewed in dozens of factories around the world, making it only nominally Irish, and not at all crafty or artisanal. Yet the brand's flagship stout is still very good, proving that you don't need to be small, local, independent, or otherwise quaint to make high-quality beer. It's far and away the best of the huge foreign (or "foreign") beers sold in America, leagues better than Heineken, Corona, Stella Artois, and the like.
But sales are declining here (down 6 percent in North America last year) amid America's craft-beer boom. Guinness continues to make a fine dry Irish stout, but it's no longer the best beer available at any but the least ambitious of bars. Simply put, these guys no longer dominate the "at least it doesn't suck" category.
True, I included Guinness on a recent list of underrated beers, because hardcore American craft geeks tend to willfully ignore any company that can afford to advertise, but I can't remember the last time I ordered a pint myself. The ramshackle Irish-owned bar where I conduct most of my research has just a handful of decent beers on tap: One of them is Guinness, but another happens to be Mayflower Porter, and while I don't fetishize the concept of supporting local breweries, all things being equal (or anywhere close), I'd rather ship my beer money 30 miles downstate to Mayflower rather than over to the company that owns Smirnoff. Everyone would.
Guinness, to its credit, seems to know this, which is why they've made a big deal about the provenance of their new Blonde American Lager. They make no attempt to hide the fact that the Blonde is made in Latrobe, Penn., and since they know we suck at geography, the beer's full name helpfully reminds us that Pennsylvania is in America.
And the choice to brew a pale lager—which they call "blonde," because Diageo can afford a marketing department that knows blondes are sexier than pales—is a further concession to American tastes. For all the noise about craft ale, wan yellow macro-lager still accounts for the overwhelming majority of our national beer market. But Guinness isn't content to simply fight for the Bud Man's affection: Blonde's promotional copy also boasts of using Willamette and Mosaic hops, a naked appeal to the type of drinker who knows (and cares) not only that hops go in beer, but also that there are different kinds of hops.
Guinness Blonde American Lager pours a nice orange-tinted light-copper color that shouts "not Miller Lite." Good start, but who cares? This shit smells like wet cardboard. There's also a slighty fruity malt note—apple, maybe?—but no evidence of the tropical or pine presence you'd expect from the justifiably trendy Mosaic hops. There's a faint astringency and a bit of grassiness on the finish, but that's about it.
The attempt to have it both ways—to brew a beer that apes typical American macro bullshit, yet also uses trendy hops—will be Blonde's downfall. I expect it will be off the shelves within two years. It's not a bad beer, per se, but it's one without any real reason to exist. It's not cheap enough—or American enough, or canned enough, or truck-commercial enough—to replace Budweiser, and it's not good enough to compete with the real American craft lagers or modestly hopped pale ales.
Don't drink this stuff. If you want a Coors Light, then have a Coors Light. If you want something that's like a Coors Light, but better, there's almost certainly a brewer in your area making a credible pale lager (or better yet, a pilsner). We've got a hop shortage on our hands here, and although I applaud Guinness's attempt to stay relevant, we can't encourage this senseless waste of our most important agricultural product.
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Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and some of his closest friends have met Certified Cicerones. Find him on Twitter @WillGordonAgain. Image by Jim Cooke.
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