Guinness Comes Alive in a 2009 Book

Given our longstanding interest in Guinness and some dozen posts in the last two years on various aspects of the stout and its history, we decided to revisit a small volume bought some years ago, The Guinness Story by Edward J. Bourke.

The book, published in 2009 by a now-retired Diageo microbiologist, contains a fine collection of historical photos, over 100. The text deals, as the subtitle indicates, with Guinness family history, the beer itself, and how the business grew.

Initially we only skimmed the text, considering it was at best an adjunct to the photos. On now reading the book in full, we see it is a well-presented, multi-faceted introduction to the story of Guinness.

There are many nuggets including for those interested primarily in the historical palate of Guinness.

Bourke’s family had owned pubs for two generations, and he gives some interesting information on Guinness bottling in the pub or distributor’s cellar, the old way that is before Guinness conditioned the beer at the brewery and assumed the bottling itself.

The beer was poured from the cask into a trough from which it was siphoned into bottles labelled by the publican. It was then at its best from conditioning in the bottle within seven to 10 days. The informed reader, wondering at the oxygen risk from such transfers, is answered by his statement that the yeast activity took up the oxygen in the bottle, at least without evident risk over the short period mentioned. He states this bottled Guinness was considered the best in the country by some.

Bourke indicates that this form was duplicated in factory production – this was the unpasteurized bottled Guinness that was the last available form of naturally-matured Guinness – but that finally it was pasteurized for increased stability.

The other form of pre-metal keg, nitro-dispense Guinness he upholds as a paragon was barrelled beer shipped by barge to Limerick. The “gentle” passage down the canal and Shannon river system to the southwest “whipped” oxygen into the beer and resulted in an ultra-good pint.

I would think this remained draft beer, i.e., wasn’t bottled at destination, as he states a cask was difficult to bottle once conditioning had started (due to the lively character). Bourke mentions that unfermented wort formed part of the mix in the barrels. This “heading” technique dated from the 19th century if not the origins of the brewery.

Regarding the adoption of nitrogen dispense, Bourke states relatively little, except to say, as some students of Guinness know, that the idea in part was to put nitrogen in the beer as this had occurred naturally from compressed air dispense in the old days. He doesn’t elaborate too much in this area, perhaps due to company sensitivities, hard to say.

Thus, we are not explained how the old draft Guinness was dispensed in the pubs, the presumed system of high and low cask, etc. which is important historically especially as the cream character and palate were said to be special.

(Of course cask-conditioned beer, including for some porter in Ireland, has returned via the new generation of craft brewers).

One striking thing: stainless tanks shipped to Guinness’ plant in Nigeria, no doubt to send the concentrate meant to darken a local brew for porter, sometimes came back with live snakes crawling out! A snake catcher was employed in Africa but didn’t quite catch them all. The creatures mostly expired once in the cool Irish climate, but in summer you could get a live one, as they say. The Dublin zoo has a fine collection of these specimens, he notes.

Many other bits are of good interest including on water transport in general for Guinness, other forms of transport (rail was used a lot but it shook up the beer), “roll-on roll-off” for trucks which can handle thousands of pints, and evolution of barley varieties especially Plumage-Archer.

Mr. Bourke’s Linkedin page states he is currently writing books on distillation and brewing history in Ireland, which is great news. His scientific knowledge and family history in the pub business are the ideal combination for this. He writes well too and has authored a series of books on shipwrecks around Ireland.

As I have often expressed, I hope Guinness will re-focus on its core specialty. Guinness West Indies Porter was a step in the right direction although it can be hard to find in export markets. But we need to see naturally-conditioned stout too, in bottle and cask, and with all-malt recipes as in the 19th century. Short of that, and while I find Guinness’ history compelling especially as presented here, Guinness will have limited interest for me and, I suspect, many students of the beer palate. This is due to its mild taste, substantial adjunct content, and perhaps the elimination of natural conditioning.

Still, from the viewpoints mentioned above the book is an excellent resource. I recommend it to any Guinness or beer history enthusiast.

Note re image: the image above appears in the page listing The Guinness Story for purchase, linked in the text. All intellectual property in the image belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable.  Image is used solely for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.