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Such is my commitment (addiction?) to Guinness that I once wrote to them – entirely seriously – suggesting they might like to sponsor me. Endless pints, snazzy t-shirts, tickets to the rugby, that sort of thing. Face tattoos were out, I said, but I’d hold up my end with some Instagram stories. How about it?
I'll level with you: they weren’t especially keen. Still, I mention this gloriously unprofessional attempt to get tangled up in a conflict of interest as proof that I’m heavily into the black stuff. It’s not just my go-to order, it’s a staple of my diet – and then I heard St James’s Gate would be rolling out barrels without booze in them. Ah, I thought, they’ve finally lost their minds.
Here’s the thing: an awful lot of alcohol-free beer just isn’t very good. There’s a reason it’s called Becks Blue: that’s exactly how you feel after drinking a bottle. And while usual Guinness is hardly strong, just 4.2 per cent, the flavour is distinct. It’s put together. Everything is in balance; take out one part – especially the fun part – and surely, you're pouring a pint of disaster? Cracking the first can, then, came with a side-order of scepticism.
"Rough Wednesday?" my colleague laughed, walking past. "It's alcohol-free," I replied. She looked disappointed. I looked disappointed. There was a touch of shame to boot; what's the point of a professional lush if they're not on the piss?
Still, I cracked on. Opening the can, there came a bit of froth, a proper hiss of gas.
I begin pouring – and it's green! This stuff is bright, Leprechaun green!
...It's not. It's exactly the same as normal. It slooshes into the glass brown and bubbling gold, before settling into that faintly black colour that goes ruby in the light. If anything, it's darker than usual – held up to the newsroom's ceiling, the light doesn't make it through. Memories of desk Guinness from less serious days tell me the proper stuff isn't opaque like this. Above this tarry column sits a perfectly decent head; the pint has settled far more quickly than usual.
Aaron Wall, the Irishman behind Islington's excellent Homeboy, once told me the rule with Guinness is to drink it in no fewer than three sips (you'd be greedy) and no more than five (that's letting it go to waste). I take the first gulp. When I'm back up for air, something's missing. The flavour seems to be there, but a hard-earned pint usually comes with a wash of warmth; this doesn't. Still, I can't find much fault with the taste; it's just like canned Guinness.
This comes with a caveat – canned Guinness isn't much cop. Lockdown proved it; the black stuff needs the pressure of a pump to get it going. I thought I'd get by while trapped at home with four-packs from the supermarket – instead, they mostly went untouched and so, when I heard about the first pub serving takeaway pints, I found myself cycling 10 miles for a freshly poured pint (the sting? No Guinness).
Where to find the best Guinness in London
Still, the canned stuff does when it needs to, and 0.0 is almost identical to that; I'm not convinced that I'd be able to tell this weren't the real deal if it were served to me blind. As the drink went on, I fancied I could tell a few differences – it seemed to taste more of coffee than usual, and it certainly seemed more bitter. But then, even knowing it was alcohol-free, I felt I was getting that first-pint buzz on. I wondered, briefly, if I might be the Pavlov's Dog of getting pissed.
Oddly, though, as I shook these fake thoughts out of my head, I found I didn't really fancy getting to the end of my drink. It seemed heavier, somehow, than normal. But I began to think I'd love to see what 0.0 might taste like fresh in a pub. Guinness say it'll go on draught in early 2021, and I'd wager it'll be near indistinguishable from its alcoholic counterpart – and therein, perhaps, lies its strength. Those who don't drink won't have to suffer nights in the local suffering sugary soft drinks, or working their way through another tonic and lime, while those diving headfirst into a hangover will be able to skip a couple of rounds without that feeling of missing out.
There, I think, it will shine. Third pints are treacherous; they always suggest a fourth. That's the tipping point, when sobriety is firmly resigned to the back seat and the session takes over. Swap the boozy pint for this stuff, and maybe it'll help keep the head clear, and ease off the hell of the next morning to boot. Though beers without booze always feel like they've forgone their entire raison d'etre, there's promise in this pint.More about: | Guinness | Taste Test