Guinness is probably one of the most widely recognized beer brands worldwide, thanks to savvy marketing and plenty of lore to attract interest. But what is Guinness – what does it taste like, and how is it enjoyed?
Guinness is an Irish dry stout made distinctive by its malty coffee and chocolate flavors and a velvety mouthfeel thanks to the use of nitrogen. The brewery has been making this beer in Ireland since 1759 and it is the best-selling drink in Ireland. It is widely enjoyed with pub foods and is always served in the signature Guinness-branded glass.
Keep reading for everything you need to know about the ingredients in Guinness, what sets it apart, and the best way to drink this historic beer.
Tasting notes and flavors for Guinness
Guinness is a beer of few ingredients that have a lot of impact.
Guinness is simply made of roasted barley, malted barley, hops, yeast, and water. These elements come together to create a stout with flavors of coffee, chocolate, and caramel with a little hoppy backbone for balance.
When poured from the tap, a can, or a bottle, it is given its distinctive creamy head from the use of nitrogen rather than carbon dioxide. It is smooth and light in body with a low ABV, coming in at just 4.2%.
Guinness characterizes their beer as the ‘perfect balance of bitter and sweet with malt and roast characters’.
Guinness has notes of fresh roasted coffee and dark chocolate balanced by slight hoppy and citrusy bitterness.
The creamy, long-lasting head provides additional bittersweet flavoring.
Why does Guinness taste like coffee?
Coffee beans are roasted before they are brewed into the cups of joe enjoyed in the morning. Guinness is made with barley that has been roasted.
The drying action of roasting barley-like coffee beans imparts toasty, caramelized flavors with a touch of acidity and vanilla notes.
Why does Guinness taste like chocolate?
Like coffee beans, cocoa beans are also roasted before being made into chocolate. As an additional boost, malted barley lends sweetness, which balances the roasted quality.
The combination of using roasted barley and malted barley creates a distinctive chocolate flavor in Guinness.
Is Guinness bitter?
The combination of hops, as well as the citric quality of roasted barley, lends a balanced bitterness to Guinness.
It is a cohesive part of the beer, just as slight bitterness is to be expected in a dark chocolate bar or a cup of coffee.
Similar to the flavors of Guinness, the beer smells of mild coffee and toasty malt. There are also nutty and slightly saline hints on the nose.
These toned-down characteristics come from the malted barley, where the roasted barley really shines on the palate.
Guinness is often referred to as ‘the black stuff’ but if held to the light, drinkers will notice the beer is actually a dark ruby red hue.
Guinness is dark in color with a tan-colored head so creamy and thick it appears whipped. This is due to the nitro pour, which gives the head a smoother appearance with tighter bubbles than if carbon dioxide had been used.
This nitro pour also means the head lasts a very long time with heavy lacing.
Thanks to the use of nitrogen, Guinness is creamy and velvety in the mouth. This is due to the small, tightly-packed bubbles created by using majority nitrogen to softly carbonate the beer.
It has a light to medium body and is smooth on the palate.
Guinness Draught Stout recipe and ingredients
While the exact recipe of Guinness is a secret, Guinness has divulged five primary ingredients:
- Roasted barley
- Malted barley
Guinness likes to name a sixth ingredient – innovation – that makes their beer so special. Part of this innovation is Guinness’s application of nitrogen.
Rather than relying solely on carbon dioxide to provide carbonation, Guinness uses a 75% nitrogen to 25% CO2 ratio for its kegged offerings. In cans, the ‘widget’ (a small plastic ball) inside holds a small amount of nitrogen that is released once the can is popped. This plastic device helps recreate the draft experience at home.
The use of nitrogen to give this dry Irish stout its distinguished creamy head and velvety texture sets the beer apart from other stouts whose ingredient list is otherwise similar.
As a stout, Guinness uses top-fermenting yeast and takes advantage of warmer temperatures to produce their beer. Like other ales in its class, Guinness sports fruity and sweet notes that are apparent in both flavor and aroma.
While Guinness doesn’t disclose which strain of hops they use, many clone recipes utilize East Kent Goldings for its spicy, citric notes. Many enterprising homebrewers have come up with Guinness clone recipes, including this one that yields 5 gallons:
- 5 lbs English 2-row pale ale malt
- 2.5 lbs flaked barley
- 1 lb roasted barley
- 2.4 oz East Kent Goldings hops (60 min)
- 1 qt/1 L yeast starter: Wyeast 1084 or WLP004
- .75 cups corn sugar (for priming)
- Heat 2.66 gallons water to 161°F and stir in crushed grains and flaked barley.
- Mash at 150°F for 60 minutes.
- Stir boiling water until temperature reaches 168°F.
- Rest for 5 minutes.
- Recirculate until the wort is clear, then begin running the wort off to your kettle.
- Sparge with 170°F water.
- Boil wort for 90 minutes, adding hops with 60 minutes left in boil.
- Cool wort and transfer to the fermenter. Aerate wort and pitch yeast.
- Ferment at 72°F.
- Rack to secondary when fermentation is complete.
- Bottle after a few days, when beer falls clear.
Guinness has a low ABV of just 4.2%.
Many ales land between 5% and 8% ABV. Guinness is in line with many other Irish dry stouts, which usually have alcohol contents close to 4%.
Guinness calories and nutritional information
For every 500ml of ‘the black stuff’ (whether from tap or packaged), Guinness provides the following nutritional and caloric information:
- 175 calories (that’s just 50 calories more than Bud Light!)
- 13.3 grams carbohydrates
- 4.2% ABV
In addition to its low alcohol content and fairly low calories, Guinness may have some surprising health benefits. It’s possible the barley in Guinness provides heart-healthy polyphenols, as well as antioxidants, B vitamins, and fiber.
In the first recipe change in 256 years, Guinness tweaked its processes in 2016 to make the beer vegan. Previously, they’d used isinglass, or fish bladders, to filter the beer. The new state-of-the-art filtration system is completely vegan-friendly.
How to drink Guinness for the best flavor
While it may be true to some that Guinness tastes better in Ireland, it can be enjoyed all around the world if treated properly.
Even though Guinness was originally intended to be served from a keg, the nitrogen-filled widget technology present in cans helps bring the same nitro experience home. Appropriately chilled and properly poured Guinness is delicious anywhere.
Guinness served on tap in bars and restaurants is almost always served in branded Guinness glasses with a balloon top and embossed harp on the side. Not to worry if you do not have one of these specific glasses at home – any beer clean pint glass will work just fine.
While some people will insist Guinness should be enjoyed at room temperature, the brewery disagrees.
On their website, Guinness recommends chilling Guinness to 46.4℉ (or 8℃) for at least 24 hours before serving.
Do you drink Guinness cold or warm?
Guinness should be enjoyed cold, despite persistent rumors to the contrary.
Depending on the style of beer, most should be chilled between 45 and 55℉. With the recommendation from Guinness that their beer be served at 46.4℉, this beer falls right in line with conventional guidance.
Bottle, can, or draft?
Guinness was originally intended to be served from wooden casks.
There is a specific methodology to pouring Guinness, whether from a tap, a bottle, or a can, all in order to best take advantage of the benefits of the nitro pour.
Whether you prefer Guinness at the bar or Guinness at home, you can pour yourself a perfect glass.
When pouring Guinness from a tap:
- Start with a clean, dry glass.
- Tilt the glass at a 45-degree angle and pour ¾ of the way up the glass.
- Allow the ‘surge,’ or the nitrogen bubbles, to settle before continuing to pour. There will be a noticeable color shift from bottom to top to indicate when this is over. This will take over a minute, and closer to two minutes.
- Slowly pour to top off the beer.
When pouring Guinness from a can:
- Start with a clean, dry glass.
- Open the can, which activates the widget inside that contains a small amount of nitrogen to create the surge.
- Tilt the glass at a 45-degree angle and confidently pour. When the beer is ¾ of the way up the glass, straighten the glass so it is upright, continuing to pour.
- Allow the surge and head to settle momentarily before taking your first sip.
When pouring Guinness from a bottle:
- Start with a clean, dry glass.
- Tilt the glass and the bottle toward each other, pouring confidently without touching the bottle to the glass.
- At the ¾ mark, begin to lift the glass upright to finish the pour.
- Allow the surge and head to settle momentarily. Enjoy!
Type of glass
Bars and restaurants that carry Guinness on tap will serve the beer in specially branded glassware.
The Guinness glasses display an embossed harp that indicates that ¾ mark (or when to tilt upright!), as well as the Guinness logo that looks very attractive against the dark beer.
While you can purchase Guinness glasses for your own home, a standard pint glass (preferably with a balloon top similar to the Guinness–specific glass) will work just fine. The most important aspect is that the glassware is clean.
What kind of foods pair best with Guinness?
Guinness pairs wonderfully with traditional pub foods of all kinds.
Perhaps one of the best-known pairings is a pint of Guinness with beef stew, which may or may not have used some Guinness in the cooking process. The pairing works so well because rich, umami-packed spoonfuls are balanced by sips of smooth, lightly bitter, caramelized stout.
Other excellent pairings include:
- Shepherd’s or cottage pie – Made with ground lamb or ground beef respectively, these pies can be made with a Guinness gravy as well as enjoyed beside one. Malty Guinness complements the meaty, savory dish.
- Fish and chips – Shatteringly crispy fried fish and salty chips play nicely with the light bodied, smooth nature of Guinness. The contrast between slightly oily fish and malty beer is particularly delicious.
- Grilled sausages – Smoky sausages fresh off the grill echo those roasty notes of Guinness.
- Molten lava cake – The bittersweet, bold coffee quality of Guinness complements the gooey dark chocolate center of a molten lava cake. The Guinness is lightly sweet itself and both the cake and beverage temper each other.
Is Guinness an acquired taste?
Like any other beer, some people take to Guinness immediately whereas others may need some time to come around to its malty, slightly sweet, roasty flavors. Others may never understand the allure of a proper pint of the black stuff.
If you’re trying Guinness for the first time, try to find a bar that has it on tap, as it was originally designed to be drunk. Savor it and take in everything Guinness offers, and decide for yourself if it is an acquired taste.
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