If I wanted water, I would have asked for water.


Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Quarter-Millennium and Still Brewing

Tonight at a minute to six Ireland time (17:59), Guinness will raise a toast to celebrate 250 years of brewing and selling beer. It was on near* this day in 1759 that Arthur Guinness took out his famous 9,000-year lease on the St. James Gate brewery in Dublin. I will acknowledge this date in stout-loving Beervana with a post or two on the milestone, beginning with a consideration of that quarter-millennium Guinness has managed to stay in business.

We are used to looking backward, and in retrospect, vast numbers do not impress us. Thanks to museums and history books, we have grown comfortable with the distant past, and by this measure, 1759 barely rates. Interestingly, when we look into the future, even modest numbers seem impossibly distant. Global warming gets a yawn because, hey, 2100 is so far in the future, who cares whether the seas are lapping at the shores of Beaverton? So imagine the year 2234. That's when BridgePort will celebrate its 250th. A better perspective on longevity, yes?

With that in mind, let's cast our gaze backward with a little more interest. Envision a cosmic mash tun that can take us back to 1759. What would the world look like?

According to the UN, the world's population was just 800 million people, and most of them lived on farms. This was a pre-industrial, pre-electrical era, so people managed the nights with candles and lamps. It was still a mostly organic world. The steam engine wouldn't be invented for another ten years, so bodies did all the work: men lifted and toted; oxes and horses pulled and conveyed. Ships moved by windpower (it was after the glory days of piracy, but boats were still powered by sails). This pre-industrial phase also coincided with the peak of the Little Ice Age, so I expect it was a mite chilly in old Dublin town.

It was an interesting time historically and intellectually. The upheaval of the reformation led to the rise of empire and during Guinness' time, Europe was enjoying the fruit of the enlightenment. As empires rose and grew, revolutions percolated. (It was the year Voltaire published Candide.) America's was 15 years away France's 30. But for all that, it was only relatively enlightened. Colonists were busy importing slaves to the US--where, we sometimes forget, they were common even in the North. There wasn't a single democracy and the idea of rule by the people was inconceivable. Instead, empires with now-strange names were common: Prussia, Qing (Manchu), Ottoman, Persia, and Mughal.

North America was still mostly unexplored, and although decimation of native nations had begun on the East Coast, in the Midwest and West, Native Americans continued their undisturbed ways of life.

The founding of Guinness also came during that age of the rise of private capital and the idea of the modern business. Adam Smith published The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a work that would be instructive in forming the ideas he published later in Wealth of Nations. Breweries were timeless, and there remain extant examples that pre-date Guinness. But Guinness was, by Protz's account, a businessman from the start, not an old-world craftsman. He was sharp enough to sign the famous 9,000-year lease, also securing free water and also bought a neighboring flour mill to ensure a regular supply of grain. When the rise of porter's popularity started flooding in from England 30 years later, Guinness started brewing it in Dublin and by 1799 made it his sole product.

Guinness prospered, and the company's early bio reads like a modern corporation: he battled local government over taxes and eventually gained enough influence to become sole supplier to Dublin Castle. He became the first national brewer in Ireland, using barges to distribute his ale. And the brewery continued to innovate, creating a "double porter" by the end of the century and finally, under Arthur's son (also Arthur) created the "dry" style that came to typify Irish stouts. The company's marketing and business success in subsequent decades--centuries--is legend.

So there you have it, 250 years. Quite a thing, and certainly makes it a lovely day for a Guinness.

_______________
*Text corrected. See long, interesting debate in comments below.

13 comments:

DA Beers said...

Great read Jeff. Bringing back an old post... this article is writing not blogging.

The Beer Nut said...

It was on this day in 1759 that Arthur Guinness took out his famous 9,000-year lease on the St. James Gate brewery in Dublin.
No it wasn't. The lease was signed on December 31st. Some marketing team came up with September 24th most likely based on a shrewdly calculated graph showing which day would be most profitable.

The history of Guinness, like the history of any of the world's breweries that turn out chemical-laden tasteless swill, is one of sharp business practices, consolidation, monopolisation, and continual downgrading of the product in a race to the bottom for a better bottom line.

Guinness destroyed Irish beer. Their British parent company spends millions on advertising each year (Lord knows they don't spend it on hops and barley -- Guinness stout never sees a real hop in its life). They don't need your help.

Mine's an O'Hara's. And not just on September 24th.

DA Beers said...

The Beer Nut,

Funny you mention Guinness not seeing real hops... isn't that a Chimay glass you're drinking from? Ironic?

Jeff Alworth said...

For those who don't know the Beer Nut by name or reputation, allow me to make the introductions: he's a blogger from Dublin, both well-spoken and astute. I am a regular reader of his blog, and where Irish beer is concerned, I generally defer without a peep.

In this case, I think I will offer a rebuttal. Sometimes, when you live in the ancient shadow of a (foreign-owned) giant, you have a particular perspective.

First, let's start with the quibble: December 31 vs. September 24. On this I do defer but add: who cares? After 250 years, what's 9 weeks? Let the brewery decide the time they blow out the candles. In our local example, Widmer uses '84 as the date of birth, even though they didn't deliver beer until '85--and after BridgePort. Really, who cares?

A second quibble. Guinness ain't bad beer. If it's the Irish definition of "bottom," get out your shovel, because we've got some digging to do before we reach the likes of Busch Lite. Thirty years ago, Heineken was considered a huge, gnarly beer; draft Guinness was a punchline for foreign insanity. We understand races to the bottom and--USA!, USA!, USA!--we are the kings of that beer. Of course, Guinness also makes the stronger versions of its beer. In the US we get Extra Stout, and it remains one of my favorite beers in the world. Bottom? Hardly.

On this one though, you have my deep sympathies:

Guinness destroyed Irish beer.

Any entity that gets too big eventually becomes a malign force. We know what you mean when you describe consolidation and monopolization. That Guinness is now run by Diageo, not the family, only makes it more faceless and predatory.

Still, the post was meant to acknowledge what, at least in the brewing industry, is an astonishing accomplishment. I'm still raising my glass.

Jeff Alworth said...

And DA, thanks!

The Beer Nut said...

isn't that a Chimay glass you're drinking from?
DA, yes it is, though not intended as an endorsement of Bières de Chimay. What's your point?

who cares? ... Really, who cares?
Well, gee, since you ask twice: me, I guess. There's enough bullshit spread by the macrobrewers without adding more.

In the US we get Extra Stout
Which, as I'm sure you know, isn't made by Diageo. A-B InBev in Canada, isn't it? But yes: there are good beers in the Guinness brand portfolio: Foreign Extra clings to life, though can't be bought in Irish pubs, and Special Export which can't be bought in Ireland at all. But when Diageo talk about a product called "Guinness" they mean the 4.2% ABV cold nitro stout. Which I genuinely don't think is any better than crap lager. I firmly believe it to be Ireland's worst stout, in joint last with Beamish, which I couldn't distinguish in a blind taste. Its place as some sort of beery ambassador for Ireland is solely down to blanket marketing and international contract brewing arrangements. Just like the way Budweiser is the US's international beer ambassador (historical factoid: Guinness began brewing Budweiser in Ireland in 1987).

Guinness is now run by Diageo, not the family, only makes it more faceless and predatory
It wasn't like that. The family firm of Guinness did not get taken over by a corporate entity called Diageo. Guinness UDV willingly evolved into Diageo in the late 1990s. The company ethos did not change, except that there were no worlds left to conquer. The consolidation and monopolisation happened mainly in the early to mid 20th century when Guinness was still a family firm. The use of the canal system you mention above was the beginning of that, and the beginning of the end of regional breweries and beer diversity in Ireland.

It was family-run Guinness who, when they bought over and shut down a competing brewery would not only destroy the brewery site, but would insist on all pub memorabilia from the vanquished being destroyed -- mirrors, glassware, the lot. They didn't just want to have control of the market in the present: they wanted to be seen as the only Irish beer brand that has ever been. This Orwellian strategy was brought to you by the family-run Guinness brewery, long before the Guinnesses moved on to other things, and even longer before Guinness UDV merged with Grand Met to become Diageo.

the post was meant to acknowledge what, at least in the brewing industry, is an astonishing accomplishment
Agreed. 157 years is also a hell of an achievement. Will you be treating us to a similar annual post for Anheuser-Busch?

Anonymous said...

One could argue that A-B has only been brewing beer continuously since 1933, when prohibition ended.

Jeff Alworth said...

"Agreed. 157 years is also a hell of an achievement. Will you be treating us to a similar annual post for Anheuser-Busch?"

157 years is obviously less time than 250, but I understand your point. And here is where we part company. Unlike Guinness, A-B makes no products of worth. A-B didn't invent a style of beer--never mind one that characterizes a nation. All corporate behemoths are not created equally. Some produce products we admire. If you're a fan of Bud, I'll let you do the celebratory posts. And I won't say a word...

The Beer Nut said...

Parting us company even further, I think A-B InBev make some very good beers. In the Hoegaarden range, for instance, and Franziskaner, Spaten, Hertog Jan, Belle-Vue, Whitbread. Not world-beaters, but nice to drink. They're not branded as Anheuser-Busch, of course, but equally there's no real company called "Guinness". (The sign at the front entrance of St James's Gate.)

Where does the notion that Guinness invented a beer style come from? Is this is old canard about English stout being sweet while Irish stout is dry?

Guinness did invent nitrogenation however -- a means of crippling the flavour in any beer by keeping the aromas separate from the drinker's senses -- and with it killed off cask beer in Ireland. This invention alone should be enough to mark the company as unworthy of celebration, IMO.

Jeff Alworth said...

What's the old phrase? I believe it's "You're welcome to your own opinion, just not your own facts." And these just ain't facts:

Parting us company even further, I think A-B InBev make some very good beers. In the Hoegaarden range, for instance, and Franziskaner, Spaten, Hertog Jan, Belle-Vue, Whitbread.

We are now giving A-B credit for brands in In-Bev's portfolio, a company that took over A-B hostilely less than a year ago? That is a nutty assertion.

We credit/blame companies for the beers they produce. You cannot reasonably describe Hoegaarden et al as products of Anheuser-Busch.

And here you miss the argument by 150 years:

Where does the notion that Guinness invented a beer style come from? Is this is old canard about English stout being sweet while Irish stout is dry?

Given that Guinness was developing its stout as a reaction to English stouts being imported to Dublin in 1800, I find statistics about the gravities of English stouts in the mid-20th century a strange non sequitur.

I will credit you with hating Guinness more than I hate A-B. Lots more. I can't agree to expunge the Guinness's history or credit A-B with the successes of other breweries in other countries that, until a year ago, it competed against.

Ignorant as I am of Irish brewing history, I am happy to concede that Guinness's influence on the breweries of its home country were more malign than A-B's. This seems really to be the crux of your point, and it's worth including at the top of any accounting of Guinness's record. If true, it's amply serious enough that we don't have to invent other crimes and misdemeanors.

Mark said...

Now, this online debate has some real meat, or gravity perhaps is the better description. Oh, if all online and blog commentary and exchanges were like this.

The Beer Nut said...

You're welcome to your own opinion, just not your own facts
You, ehm, you want to take another look at the second sentence in the above post?

I will credit you with hating Guinness more than I hate A-B
Good enough for me :) Cheers!

Jeff Alworth said...

You, ehm, you want to take another look at the second sentence in the above post?

My fidelity to truth is such that I adjusted the post and directed readers to your correction.

Post a Comment

NOTE: Blogspot has been eating some comments, and there doesn't seem to be anything I can do about it. IF your comment doesn't appear, it's not you, it's not me, it's the genuiuses at Google. Sorry--