Taste test: Is Guinness' main rival better than the black stuff itself?

Taste test: Is Guinness' main rival better than the black stuff itself?

Update, April 2 2024: Guinness became the UK’s best-selling beer in British pubs last year, data from the retail consultancy CGA has found. Now, stouts of all varieties are being drunk in increasing quantities, Tesco says, with sales rising by 35 per cent in the past year. Alongside Guinness, demand for stouts made by the likes of St Austell, Wychwood, and Brewdog is climbing, with more and more breweries jumping on board with the trend. The latter is already the supermarket giant’s second best-selling stout. In the video above, the Going Out team pits Brewdog’s efforts against traditional Guinness.

Years and years ago I worked in telly, which was wonderful fun — it helped enormously that I fancied my boss — apart from the 3am starts and the daily meltdowns that seem particular to underperforming producers. In spite of these howling rages, or perhaps because of them, Fridays invariably ended up with everyone in the pub, where drink would blur the tensions out of focus. I remember the presenters all seemed to need the loo at the same time.

You learn things at the pub; gossip is God. But among the more mundane lessons was that when everyone else is on the pints, a Gn’T at twice the price pretty quickly comes off as greedy. And so for the first time since spitting out Foster’s at a teenage house party, I made an effort to find a beer I could stomach; pretty swiftly, I found I could stomach Guinness very easily — although only when I could find it.

If not being able to readily get a pint of Guinness seems absurd now, it wasn’t then. Marred by its reputation as “an old man’s drink,” a decade ago, part of the routine was asking the landlord if they had any on. Often not. With sales dropping, jobs were going; take 2011, when the brewer cut 400 positions. And then — perhaps out of nowhere, but probably because of advertising —  it rallied, and kept on rallying. Now one in 10 pints sold in London is said to be a Guinness, and last week it was announced that Guinness is the UK’s most popular pint, having overtaken Carling for the first time. Its popularity seems so steadfast that Diageo, its parent, has spent 70 million quid building a 50,000 square foot Covent Garden microbrewery and bar, which sounds a bit like Mecca for fans of the black stuff. £70 million is a lot, but it’s nothing on the £1.7 billion or so the brand now makes a year.

The old failures and new successes explain both why there are so few Guinness rivals on the market, and why this month Brewdog have just come out with one — or, to put it another way: the pie was just too small to want a slice of before.

But other brewers are beginning to catch up. Brewdog have dubbed their beer Black Heart, which sounds more pirate than Irish, though its aim is assuredly on Guinness drinkers. Though already not a man known for his humility, Brewdog’s self-styled “captain” — grim — James Watt has been tweeting Diageo with a picture of his pint and a couple of little jibes there too: “Toucan play at that game” and “What if it’s better?”

Watt has also offered the brewing giant a challenge. “We would love to buy some kegs of Guinness and put your beer head to head with Black Heart on tap in all of our bars. We would then let people vote as to which one they like best?”

You’ve probably twigged where the video above goes, then. The challenge seemed an interesting one: Guinness is unlike other stouts; it sometimes hardly seems a stout at all. It is not full of coffee or bitter chocolate flavours, it’s fairly light on alcohol, its flavour is distinct but not to the point of becoming wearisome after a while. And while it used to have a self-inflicted reputation as being a meal (“Christ, you couldn’t have more than a couple”), actually it’s nothing like that. And so, where once people seemed to think it akin to something like a pint of gravy, now they’ve cottoned on it’s actually a pretty solid session beer. Even if Clare Finney can’t understand why anyone might drink something that “looks like an oil slick.”

To do the test fairly, we had a very kind nearby pub pour four pints of Guinness into Brewdog’s Black Heart glasses, and let the Brewdog pub set them side by side, so no-one drinking would know which was which. You can watch the results above. There are malt-y notes detected, a comparison to a walk on a gravel path. I’m not sure they’re so very alike at all. But what I will say is, if all those years ago we’d drunk in a Brewdog and not in the local boozer, I might have found another choice pint to sink as I wondered if my boss would ever fancy me back. But I’ll tell you about that another time.

Brewdog’s Black Heart is on sale now. For more information, visit