Taste: Battle of the Brews

Local black beers take on longtime heavyweight Guinness

Few beers have achieved the national-icon status of Guinness. The famously slow-pouring stout is an international ambassador of Irish hospitality and pub culture. And for decades, Guinness has been a “must-have” on draft for


Few beers have achieved the national-icon status of Guinness. The famously slow-pouring stout is an international ambassador of Irish hospitality and pub culture. And for decades, Guinness has been a “must-have” on draft for taverns, Irish-themed or not. But its claim to the darkest tap is slipping. The competition? German imports, and local black beers like O’Reilly’s Irish Stout.

Like most black beers, Guinness looks and tastes stronger than it really is. Roasted malts deliver pungent espresso-like flavors and dramatically dark color. But Guinness is relatively low in alcohol, registering about the same level as Coors Light. Its full body derives not from alcohol, but from nitrogen, which boosts the beer’s natural carbonation to produce a dramatic cascade of froth, a stiff, creamy head, and mouth-filling texture.

In part, Guinness has been a victim of its own success. Its revolutionary “Draught Can” packaging, with widgets inside to release nitrogen, now guarantees a perfect pour every time. This viable single-serve option, combined with rising keg prices, has made Guinness vulnerable to high-quality competitors vying for the black beer tap.

Benefiting from the shake-up are local stouts and porters, like Yards’s smoky Love Stout, Flying Fish’s decadent porter, and Lancaster’s luscious Milk Stout, all seeing more play on tap rotations about town. Imports are getting in on the game as well, like Germany’s Kostritzer Schwarzbier, an uncommonly smooth black lager found on tap at Ludwig’s Garten on Sansom and Ansill in Queen Village.

O’Reilly’s Irish Stout, from Sly Fox in Phoenixville, is Guinness’s most successful challenger. Brewed in a dry Irish-stout style from premium ingredients, it has a dark, chocolaty richness that simply tastes fresher and more vibrant than the Irish import. O’Reilly’s is muscling its way onto nitro taps in former Guinness strongholds like McGillin’s Olde Ale House below Broad and Chaucer’s on Lombard. This spring, the Drafting Room had customers participate in a taste test of Guinness vs. O’Reilly’s. The results so heavily favored the local contender that both the Exton and Springhouse locations have switched to Sly Fox permanently.

Marnie Old discusses wines, beers and spirits at marnieold.com. She may consult for some of the businesses she writes about.