Explaining Nitro Guinness to Consumers

The transition Guinness made from naturally-conditioned beer in casks (“real ale”, broadly) to filtered, nitrogenated, and ultimately pasteurized beer has been discussed by numerous writers, from different angles.

These include Michael Jackson, Roger Protz, David Hughes, Martyn Cornell, Boak & Bailey, Bill Yenne, and Liam in Ireland. I have addressed numerous aspects in this blog, including introduction of “nitro” Guinness in 1960s North America, and linking films showing service of the older and later forms of Guinness draught.

(The bottled form has a somewhat parallel evolution, but I’ll leave that aside for now).

This piece by Boak and Bailey, depicting a move in 1958 toward steel barrels, illustrates a mid-point in the history. Guinness was doing away with its old fired American oak barrels in favour of hermetically sealed metal barrels.

To appreciate fully the regime of wood at Guinness before the switch-over, a 1954 documentary is revealing, “The Craft of the Cooper”. (Snippets have made the beer historical rounds but I cannot recall seeing the full, nine-minute film earlier).

Even with the first metal barrels though the beer was still “live”. Company literature unearthed by Boak & Bailey suggested, or by reasonable interpretation, that live barreled beer was topped with CO 2 pressure, a process then known in British brewing as “top” or “blanket” pressure.

It helped protect the beer from deterioration and dispense it, but such beer was substantially real, even as some carbonation was injected in the pint, vs. all internally generated.



To compress a long history I would summarize it this way:

  • draught Guinness naturally conditioned in the barrel was available in Ireland, and in some places in England and Scotland, from the 1800s through to the nitro era
  • a two-cask system used in 1950s Ireland dispensed lively and flatter beer from one tap
  • I interpret this not as not, of itself, having introduced the “high-low” or two-cask dispense, but a refinement of drawing*
  • the first metal barrels contained live beer with a few pounds top pressure
  • at Park Lane London where Guinness had a second brewery (later closed), the main production stout was mixed with gyle, or newly-fermenting beer
  • ditto in Ireland but a small percentage of old vatted stout was also added there
  • from 1959 nitrogenated, filtered stout (no live yeast) was barreled and dispensed in Ireland and UK with a special tap, a system developed mainly by a company scientist, Michael Ash**
  • the stated reasons were to advance consistency and overall quality
  • nitrogenated barreled stout is pasteurized in UK c. 1967, and finally Ireland
  • “extra cold” and other variants of draught Guinness later emerge, but the die is cast from 1959 with the nitro system

What I wish to add here, not documented elsewhere to my knowledge, is how Guinness explained the switch-over from a live product to its customers.

First, let’s consider a couple of ads that immediately precede the “ash can”, or new era.

The Eastbourne Herald on December 21, 1957 advertised “Creamy Draught Guinness” at the Clifton Hotel, South Street, Eastbourne (England).

The ad shows a typical pint “jar”, straight-sided with smiling face etched into the head – a pre-1960s emblem of Guinness advertising.

A flying toucan completes the picture, jar of Guinness a-beak, leading our way to an appetizing pint at the Clifton.

As a seaside resort town, a special effort likely was made to supply this locale, as draught Guinness was not common then in postwar Britain, Ulster apart.

Similarly, “creamy Draught Guinness” is advertised, showing the same straight-sided black pint, in the Aberdeen Evening Express on January 6, 1960. The ad lists numerous venues in Aberdeen to get the beer including the Scotia Bar, East Neuk Bar, and the Caledonian Hotel.

A penguin again appears, wand in fin pointing to the list of bars shown in contrasting shade.

So this is old-school. Let’s visit the new, via a sampling of ads in Ireland, Republic and Province. On July 16, 1965 in the Belfast Telegraph, Guinness explains that due to its “new method” costing, it noted, one million pounds:

… you’ll be able to get a really well-drawn pint of draught Extra Stout – in half the time!

So the quick service aspect is stressed, evidently the former way to draw the stout took much longer, due to working with two casks and/or the time to let the fob settle.

August 6, 1965, a Belfast Telegraph ad pictures Guinness with a modest creamy head, the one Michael Ash helped work out as ideal. A handled, Guinness-branded glass is shown – no more old-fashioned jar. No penguin.

The new glass clearly was introduced as a stylish association for the new way to serve Guinness.

A plinth-shaped font is shown with bar handle protruding from the top. The Guinness name is printed on a white band at top of font, which otherwise appears in black or another dark colour.

Ad states in part:

Guinness Extra Stout on draught. Served the new way… a pint that’s always well-drawn. Perfectly “conditioned”. And in half the time it used to take.***

A Sligo (Northwest Ireland) ad in the Sligo Champion, July 14, 1967, touted Guinness from “the new Guinness draught dispenser”, stating:

Now Guinness have installed a new improved method of pint-drawing in most bars. So now you can enjoy a perfect pint… Smooth and consistent… The most natural thing in the world.

These ads perhaps were preceded by similar ones in Ireland and England or Scotland, touting that is the new dispense system, vs. draught Guinness in general (of which many examples exist).

In 1963 Courage & Barclay introduced draught Guinness in 1,500 pubs in London and parts of the south (Belfast Telegraph, May 17, 1963), so it was spreading in usage in Britain certainly.

Since the fine points of Guinness draught service was never a selling point in non-Ulster Britain, the nitro method needed no special introduction, preceded as it was by all-CO 2 carbonated beer from metal casks.

What we can conclude is, in some markets in some periods following introduction of nitro draught, Guinness sought to explain to customers the change. It portrayed the switch in positive terms, as businesses have done immemorially when a product changes.

“New and improved” is the oldest mantra known to commerce, after all. But did the best pint of naturally-conditioned Guinness trump the consistent, filtered nitro pint? Probably.

The proponents of the new-school argued that on average the pints were improved – there were too many duff pours in the old days given the vagaries of natural conditioning and varying service methods.

Something was lost, something was gained. The rest is history.

*The idea of blending a glass of porter from older and newer casks – “stale” and mild stout – goes back to early days of porter, indeed in Britain before Ireland.

**Linked is his Wikipedia entry which sets out additional information and the trade terms devised by Guinness to describe his “ash can”.

***In the ad the word conditioned is shown in italics, a brave use of a brewing technical term in the public arena. All press references herein are via British News Archive, hence not hyperlinked (paywall).

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