How many études have I done on Guinness stout, perhaps 15 or 20? They cover many aspects, e.g., grist make-up and “heading” to impart foamy richness in the 1800s; the brewery in Ireland during World War II; the failed Guinness initiative in Long Island, NY, ca. 1950; the filtered and finally pasteurized “keg” Guinness that replaced naturally conditioned beer; launching the new draft form in New York and the Midwest mid-1960s; Guinness’s role in creating the international Irish pub; and opening a new brewery in Maryland a couple of years ago.
Shall we add one more facet? I say yes, which is Guinness’ role in stimulating the now world-wide craft beer revival. It’s part of the story imported beer played generally in that process, which I’ve explored in numerous posts. My own memory confirms that Guinness was a keystone in the gateway to the beer revival. It was the top-fermented equivalent of Heineken and Corona in this process, and while never rivalling the latter in sales, it always exceeded them in craft affections.
The Guinness cachet is both pre- and post-craft beer onset. One legacy is the craft staple of “dry Irish stout”, a direct offspring of Guinness.
And in truth the rep is justified, at least when Guinness is very fresh and well-poured, draft but also some bottled forms. I never cottoned to the “widget” type, bottle or can, but the rest is pretty good when on form, despite many modifications since the 1800s.
So Guinness had and retains the best of both worlds: a special place in beery affections innocent of any craft influence, and the respect of craft enthusiasts worldwide for its history and taste.
At moments in the Guinness chronology you can see the pivot. An example is provided by this 1976 article describing Guinness’ American strategy. In 1976 the pathbreaking New Albion Brewery was formed in Sonoma, CA. The two events, I assure you, are not unconnected.
Journalist Geoffrey Thompson described Guinness’ plan to capitalize on its rising popularity through a profile of its American manager, Desmond Sharp-Bolster. The latter, wrote Thompson, combined Irish wit, British charm, and American business savvy, an ideal combination for the job.
Sharp-Bolster gave Thompson a short but unusually accurate, for the time, account of Guinness history in America. He explained how Guinness reversed sagging fortunes in the 1970s by setting up a standard, domestic beer distributorship with Guinness and Harp lager bolted on as specialties. Soon total revenues were $30-$40M.
The executive noted particular growth in two sub-markets: ethnic enclaves including the Puerto Rican community, no doubt reflecting here the historic Caribbean affection for British stout, and college students, a bellwether he said of evolving tastes. (The Irish-American community was part of the picture, but implied in such discussions).
True it is that students and the younger professoriat tend to presage national trends. It was true of craft beer proper, with quality imports part of the picture. Anchor Steam, Sierra Nevada, and Samuel Smith Nut Brown Ale lubricated early rock shows in northern California, where jam bands like The Grateful Dead and the college favourite Phish played the “lot scene”. This posting on the City Tap website explains some of that history. Nascent craft brewers took notice and some crafted their image to synch with a hippie ethos.
More recently, cafes on or near campus helped popularize cold brew coffee, kombucha, and probably too the current crop of no-alcohol beers. The still newish term indie brewer derives from indie music or indie label, associated again with the arty bands favoured by students.
Guinness appealed to them by its foreign yet still familiar (Irish) background, and distinctive black hue. Student newspapers of the 1970s and 1980s carried ads for popular imports including Canadian beers, another example of different-meets-familiar.
So Thompson’s 1976 piece outlined the shape of things to come. His striking intro:
What would you do if your company sold a product which marketing experts concluded was “totally unacceptable to the American consumer?” In all likelihood you’d build a 55,000 – square-foot warehouse in Long Island City, hire a sizeable workforce and make a go of it.
Undeterred by 20 years of reverses Guinness kept at it in America, and this time was amply rewarded. The ubiquity of Guinness today in North America is a testament to its vision and enterprise. Not all big companies exist in torpor and by reaction: they also lead and innovate, then and now. Guinness, now part of mighty, London-based Diageo, was Exhibit A.
Of course, markets and business end as a complex matrix, and those who can master the formulae take the palm. Guinness built on the student interest by astute advertisements in the college press. The ad below is from a 1977 issue of the Oswegonian, a student newspaper of SUNY (State University of New York) at Oswego.
The new Maryland facility shows Guinness enterprise and pluck to be alive and well, although it remains to be seen how the unit will do. Personally, I think it should produce Guinness stout here vs. simply the Guinness Blonde and other non-stout.
No doubt the company fears the loss of the special prestige associated to historic manufacture in Dublin, but on a long-term basis will be motivated, we believe, to brew the stout locally (as it does, say, in Canada for one form of it, in Nigeria, and parts of Asia). Time will tell.
Note re image: image above was sourced from the digitized newspaper identified and linked in the text, courtesy NYS Historical Newspapers. All intellectual property thereto or therein belongs solely to the lawful owner(s), as applicable. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.