Does Guinness Zero Taste Like Regular Guinness?

can of guinness zero next to a can of guinness draught.

Plus, some history surrounding the iconic beer.

Guinness Draught is the most unique macro beer in the US market. It’s often the only nitro pour at bars, the only stout on more limited menus, and it’s one of relatively few examples of its style, even when including craft brewers. Given this rare combination of singularity and prevalence, the brewers at St. James’ Gate are definitively linked to the Irish Dry Stout. It was practically inevitable, then, that they would produce the first alcohol-free nitro can.

In late 2020 (mid 2021 in the US), Guinness entered into the booming non-alcoholic space, with a drink that ideally tastes just like their globally-renowned beer. We’ve separately reviewed Guinness Zero, and here we tested both drinks side-by-side to answer the number one question when an alcohol-free version of a drink is released: does it taste like “the real thing?”

The Challenge

Besides its ability to make that greasy, 3am pizza taste awesome, dude, alcohol has a substantial effect on the flavor of a beverage. That often only becomes evident once it’s removed (or not formed at all); regardless of the method used to create a non-alcoholic brew, the flavor is decidedly different from its alcoholic counterpart. The brewers at Guinness, for example, added fructose and “natural flavors” to their non-alcoholic Guinness Zero to better replicate the flavors of the “regular” version. This is (partly) why there are still many massive beer brands that don’t yet have non-alcoholic versions of their beers — much more thought and effort has to go into making a non-alcoholic analog than just brewing a beer and cooking off the alcohol.

With such an iconic beer as Guinness, the brewers were almost their own worst enemy. They couldn’t just make a nice-tasting, non-alcoholic dry Irish stout on nitro and call it a day — they had to recreate Guinness, specifically. And Guinness isn’t some niche release from a small brewer: it, alone, makes up 2% of the total beer market in the US. Some people picking up a Guinness 0 for the first time have been drinking the Draught version for decades. To these consumers, with the flavor profile so deeply embedded in their taste memory, any differences in a non-alcoholic version would be immediately evident. Naturally, an alcohol-free analog loses a lot of its luster if it only sort of tastes like the version that gives you a buzz.

Given this challenge, I believe Guinness has succeeded in creating a faithful non-alcoholic counterpart. Their NA isn’t absolutely indistinguishable from the alcoholic version, but they’ve gotten damn close. So let’s crack open some cans!

The Contenders

Guinness Draught

Before we discuss Guinness Zero, let’s talk about the original. Guinness (the company) dates all the way back to 1759, and these days they are one of relatively few (yet the best-known) brewers of the Irish Dry Stout. This style is characterized by coffee-like roasted notes, dark chocolate, moderate hop bitterness, and a low-carbonated, creamy mouth feel. The modern incarnation of Guinness Draught, developed in 1959, is fairly archetypal for the style with chocolate and coffee notes on the nose and palate, slightly lighter bitterness on the finish, and an easy-going 4.2% ABV.

Guinness goes a step beyond the style’s checklist and uses nitrogen in the mix for their bubbles, rather than just carbon dioxide. This adds an additional complication to manufacturing and distribution, but it enhances that creamy mouthfeel and makes Guinness stand out texturally from most other beers.

can of guinness zero beer.

Guinness Zero

Guinness Zero is not actually Guinness’s first step into the non-alcoholic market. Kaliber, an alcohol-free pale lager, has been Guinness’s alcohol-free staple of grocery store shelves and dusty beer fridge corners since 1986, but it’s never even pretended to be anything close to a stout. They followed in 2018 with Pure Brew, a limited-release golden lager out of their Open Gate experimental brewery. Notable for using a special strain of yeast that doesn’t produce more than 0.5% ABV through its full fermentation, they still weren’t ready to release a stout that could faithfully replicate Guinness Draught.

Guinness Zero is a genuine, welcome attempt to replicate the aroma, taste, and texture of Guinness Draught, and it came out right in the middle of the non-alcoholic beer boom after years of development. So the big question is, after decades of other attempts and years of tinkering: was it worth it? Did Guinness succeed in recreating their flagship beer in non-alcoholic form? Here’s what I’ve found.

Ingredients

Both beers contain Water, Malted Barley, Barley, Roasted Barley, Hops, and Yeast. Guinness Zero additionally has Fructose and Natural Flavourings to fill in the alcohol-shaped gaps.

Guinness Draught has 4.2% ABV and 125 calories per 12 oz serving, while Guinness Zero has <0.5% ABV and 57 calories per 12 oz serving.

The Experience

In the US, you’ll usually find full-strength Guinness on tap, in an 11.2oz bottle, or in a 14.2oz can. Guinness Zero comes in a similar 14.2oz can that even includes the same plastic “widget” inside to promote head formation with the dissolved nitrogen. As a result, cracking a can of Zero and pouring it in a glass (which you should always do) is effectively an identical experience to opening a can of Draught.

The Comparison

Nose

Both beers open on the nose with roasted malt notes. On a subtle level, Zero has a bit more milk chocolate character, while the Draught has a tiny bit more coffee character. Overall, the aromas are very similar between the two beers. 

Palate

Side by side, you’ll notice that Guinness Zero has a smidge less body; it’s ever so slightly more “watery.” It’s still decently rich, and it’s a good match to Guinness Draught, which is on the lighter side of stouts anyway.  The nitro rolls over the tongue just the same in both versions, providing a creamy mouth feel. The roasted malt and coffee flavors are also shared between the two, but the alcoholic version heads more in the direction of dark chocolate and bitterness on its way to the finish. Zero stays lighter, and has more pronounced milk chocolate and blackberry notes. These are present in Draught too, but less prominently.

Finish

This is where you’d probably first notice a difference, at least the first time you try these two beers side-by-side (the other differences are more subtle, and reveal themselves on subsequent tastings). Guinness Draught finishes with a roasty bitterness that covers mouth and lingers, while Guinness Zero passes that bitterness and closes with a light fruity/vanilla sweetness at the very tail end. It’s a little unfortunate with how close the rest of the tasting experience is to Guinness Draught, but thankfully it’s also not a terribly jarring finish.

Conclusion

Ultimately, Guinness Zero tastes a lot like Guinness Draught. Some people won’t even notice a difference unless they sat with the two side-by-side. I can definitely detect some differences in a close comparison, but my overall sentiment is that the two beers are probably as close to each other as is reasonably expectable. 

If you’re a Guinness fan, you probably won’t be disappointed with Guinness 0. And if you’ve never tried Guinness Draught before, you can now enjoy all of the essential bits, sans alcohol.

What Happens If You Mix Guinness Zero and Guinness Draught?

Here’s a bonus tip: If you don’t strictly drink non-alcoholic beer, then mixing these two beers is a great way to cancel out effectively all of the (again, relatively few) shortcomings we mentioned before, while creating a drink that’s only 2.1% ABV. The sum tastes even closer to full-on Guinness Draught, but you can have 28oz (the equivalent of 2.5 12oz cans) of this mixture while only consuming one standard drink of alcohol. That’s a pretty good deal if you’re looking to only drink a little alcohol, but a lot of liquid.