Guinness’ Role in Craft Beer History

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.

8 thoughts on “Guinness’ Role in Craft Beer History”

  1. I am amazed at the depth of Gary’s research back to the article by Geoffrey Thompson in 1976 but I feel that they both give me too much credit for being in the forefront of the movement into craft beers. Timing, however, was on our side. The mainstream beer market was that of light lager beer and many brands of it. With Guinness, we worked to demonstrate to the market that there were more exciting experiences for the palate. That was picked up by Les Amis du Vin, the Grossman Beverage Program and the college market—bringing us into the mainstream.
    I wonder if Rien, in his post of July 21, is not thinking of Newcastle Brown Ale.

    • Dear Desmond:

      Thanks so much for this comment, what a vantage point you have to see change in the industry from the period under study to today! Although I didn’t focus on it, many of the articles in the research bruited Harp lager and of course it did become a major product, and now Guinness has other lagers selling well internationally (American Blonde, Lager House 13 come to mind). So to my mind Guinness covered two ends in that period, insisting on presenting the traditional stout the best way possible to North Americans but also seeing the future in lager.

      On that subject, I just completed a post today on a 1961 Movietones film on Ind Coope Group (as it then was) which may be of interest. It focuses heavily on lager brands and production even though lager sales then were very small in Britain. The film is linked and discussed in this post.

      I think Allied Breweries, as it came to be, saw the lager side of the equation as well.

      Best wishes.


  2. Bingo! Yes Toby, that was it. What ever happened to that?

    I’ve never noticed Murphy’s being particularly chocolatey, but my palate is probably not as well tuned as yours. I am surprised how rarely I see it on tap. When I’m in Montreal I always make a stop at Hurley’s for a pint and it always seems to be in good condition.

    • It faded in the mid 90s if memory serves. It was a good recipe but needed more intensity of flavour. They should bring it back and boost the volume. Same sound, just louder and it would be fab.

      Murphy seems maltier than Guinness at any rate. It is available here at Stout, I’ll have to try it again soon. Also Paupers usually has it, on Bloor.

  3. First I would simply like to say: Murphy’s

    As for what we drank in college, I recall a lot of Northern Ale on budget days and Red Baron on others.

    There was a beer that was available sometime up until the mid-80’s on both draft and in bottles. It’s driving me nuts because I cannot remember the name. It was a brown/dark ale, maybe a Scottish Ale in style, I think it was also a bit higher ABV than what was average at the time. No, not Brador, I don’t recall if it was brewed by a major at the time, but I suspect it was. I’m sure it was not an import, but it was branded sort of like an import or premium offering. If you could help jog my memory, I would greatly appreciate it. I recall it being available in many of the ‘pubs’ that are now the chain landscape.

    • I agree about Murphy but I’ve only had it a couple of times when it was really fresh and you could taste the chocolatey malt.

      For that beer, not Charrington Toby perhaps?

  4. When we were in university in Vancouver in the ‘70’s, we used to drink Guinness and Tuborg to be cool. I can’t say that I really enjoyed the taste of Labatts brewed Guinness. We bought cases of stubby bottles. I assumed that it was brewed at Lanatts’ New Westminster brewery, but that may not be correct. Nowadays, I avoid Guinness as I prefer a stout with chocolate malt (no thanks on the lactose).

    I attribute my love of craft beer to my first taste of La Fin du Monde in the ‘90’s. I bought shares in Unibroue but only made a bit of profit when they sold to Sleeman. I’m sure that I would be a lot richer if the founding partners had held on for a few more years.

    • I have similar memories of Guinness and Tuborg in the 70s in Montreal. Tuborg was excellent then, malty and with a particular perfumed taste it no longer has, IMO. We had the Labatt Guinness too, all brewed initially in Montreal. I believe (I didn’t check) Moosehead brewed it for Labatt in recent years, or maybe Moosehead + a Labatt’s brewery, but in any case it was never as good as Extra Stout exported in bottle from Dublin, in my view.

      Finally, draft Guinness came to Montreal, I think first at Chex Alexandre on Peel St., which is still there. I must say it was never my favourite as an import – too bland – but I have enjoyed it in London where I assume it is similar to the one sold in Ireland.

      It is all supposed to be the same but that London one had a malt freshness and smoky edge I don’t recall in the import draught.

      I am good with lactose, I find it fills out a stout, and its use is venerable in brewing that style if we consider about 115 years venerable, as Mackeson evolved the formula in the Edwardian period.

      Of coffee I am not a fan in stout, or any beer, it seems not to suit the beer palate, but everyone has their own opinion of course. Unibroue made some good beers and still does. Yes, it was sold fairly early in his trajectory, but the range seems as good as ever and has seen some innovation lately too, so…

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