Guinness, the dark past of Ireland’s national drink

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Guinness, the dark past of Ireland’s national drink

Tasty stouts from Cork

Guinness has been described as ‘more than just an alcoholic beverage, it is a national icon full of history and heritage’. While there is some truth in this description it ignores the dark and damaging past of this so-called ‘national icon’. The Guinness beer style is not even Irish, being invented in London in the early 1700s.

Guinness has been a great success and is ‘probably’ (with apologies to Carlsberg) the most popular beer in the world. Before moving on to the less desirable parts of the Guinness story let us consider a little history. The brewery was founded by Arthur Guinness in 1759 in Dublin. Over several following generations Guinness ‘stout’ was developed, using roasted barley to give the characteristic black or dark ruby colour. In many countries ‘Black Beer’ is favoured over the term ‘Stout’. For much of the earlier period Guinness was mainly sold in Ireland and Britain but became an international brand by the early 1900s. Today in Ireland and Britain the Guinness variety sold is mostly what is known as ‘Guinness draught’ (first introduced in 1959) but internationally a number of other distinct variants of the beer are sold, and alcoholically stronger variants of Guinness are brewed in dozens of countries and continents to local taste, including America, Africa and Asia. Today the ‘mother brewery’ of Guinness remains St James’ Gate in Dublin, Ireland.

The local history of this brewery has positive elements and negative ones. From the late 1800s onwards the brewery built quality homes for its workers and provided them with free health care, and the Guinness family were correctly viewed as extremely enlightened employers (and remain so to the present day). However, as a result of the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921) the Guinness family, as Unionists opposing Ireland’s fight for freedom, moved their headquarters from Dublin to London (where it remains). As regards to nationality, it is reported that Guinness considered dropping the harp logo from their branding in the early 1970s in Britain due to the IRA bombing campaign of the time (the harp is also the official logo of the Republic of Ireland).

The really negative aspects of the Guinness story however concerns their competition in Ireland. From the 1820s onwards Guinness had adopted a policy of targeting particular towns for below-cost selling just long enough to put the local brewery out of business. This practise continued throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century. While this strategy originally targeted breweries outside of Dublin by the 1860s Guinness begun to adopt this tactic in Dublin itself, having the commercial strength to afford to do so given the profits of its international markets at that time, especially Britain. Dublin had around one dozen breweries in the 1860s with dozens more outside of the city, mostly brewing stouts and ales. Gradually Guinness’ dominance began to become total as more and more rivals were forced to close. The last non-Guinness brewery in Dublin, Findlaters, closed in 1949, leaving just four breweries in Ireland apart from Guinness’. During the early 1960s two of these, Smithwicks of Kilkenny and MacArdles of Dundalk, were acquired by Guinness’, who continued to sell their brands.

In light of the above it is strange to note that Ireland’s premier tourist attraction is the Guinness storehouse in Dublin. A stop here is de-riguer for visiting international VIP’s where they are presented with a pint ‘of the black stuff’ as part of their official visit. It’s not recorded what they think of our ‘national drink’. I wonder how many of them, like me, find the bitter and sour taste of this drink hard to swallow! Guinness, of course, is not a craft beer as it is pasteurized.


A personal beer testimony

As a lover of beer who started drinking the stuff in the late 1970s I had personal experience of the beer ‘desert’ caused by Guinness’ bully boy tactics. I was lucky in that the only two independent breweries in Ireland back then, Murphy’s and Beamish’s, were based in Cork city where I reside. By this time while Murphy’s still had a reasonable share of the city stout market Beamish’s was limited to only six pubs as it neared closure. This was tough on me as Beamish was my favourable tipple. Thankfully today both brands survive, Murphy’s doing well internationally while Beamish remains popular locally. (Beamish stout is a cream stout, richly flavoured and far from the bitter and sour taste of Guinness). Going back to the late 70’s, in most of Ireland, especially rural Ireland, the Guinness monopoly was illustrated by the availability of only three draught beers: Guinness stout, Harp lager and Smithwicks ale. Cork city was almost unique in Ireland in having more variety (largely of international brands such as Carling and Heinekin), essentially a beer oasis in the Guinness desert.

By the early 1990s however things were beginning to improve with the arrival of the first craft or microbreweries. Old habits die hard however and the first craft brewery, the Dublin Brewing Company, was unable to compete with the Guinness sales tactics and like so many before was forced to close. One cannot stem the tide however and today there are nearly one hundred craft breweries in Ireland. One can find a couple of dozen stouts and porters brewed to craft beer standards (sadly many mere Guinness clones). For a rich cream stout brewed to exacting craft beer standards in Cork one can try Shandon Stout, brewed since 1998 in the city’s famous craft brewery, the Franciscan Well. The days of drought are over but will we ever have pubs again after the Covid 19 virus!!