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03.2009

Massachusetts Beverage Business

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Article By: Lew Bryson

I was leaving on a trip to Europe not long ago and stopped in the Jet Rock bar at Philadelphia International to while away the time I’d wasted by being at security the advised two hours before my departure. I dropped anchor perused the taps, and made my decision. I had a Guinness. Got to Frankfurt, hopped on a train to Düsseldorf, took the U-bahn to the Altstadt and drank altbier for two days. It was great, and the pubs were fun. But I started feeling like a taste of home, so I stopped in at Tir Na Nog on the Bolkerstrasse. I had a Guinness . Three days later, I’m in Ghent, soaking up culture and some great Belgian food, beer, and genever. Late at night, cold winds blowing around me, I ducked into the Celtic Towers by the canal for sanctuary. I had a Guinness. When I got home, I picked up my car and met a friend for dinner at For Pete’s Sake, the Philadelphia bar run by the brother of former Bushmills master distiller David Quinn. “What can I get for you this fine night?” the bartender asked. I had a  Smithwick’s. Hey, a man needs a little variety!


The point of all this globe-trotting? Irish pubs have become a lingua franca of booze, and Guinness Stout is the black-accented blood that runs through them all. You will find some other Irish beers, to be sure. There are other stouts, like Murphy’s and Beamish, or O’Hara’s, as I talked about last year at this time. There’s Smithwick’s, finally in the US after years of exile, and Harp, the lightest of the crew (and seemingly doomed to being called “Harps” by everyone I run into). And there’s Guinness Extra Stout, the stronger, bottled, non-nitrogen version of the draft/can/widget bottle icon.

But Guinness Stout? It rules the roost. Which is amazing to me. I can remember back when I first started drinking – legally – you’d never see a Guinness tap, and the bottles were something only kids who’d been to Dublin on a semester abroad would drink. Now you may find it as a common tap in every kind of bar. Thank the popularity of the Irish pub, thank the great ad campaigns they’ve run, and maybe thank the craft beers for the wrecking ball work they did on the idea of “beer” as “light lager”.

For instance, while Doyle’s Café in Jamaica Plain is definitely an Irish bar, it’s also practically the house tap for Samuel Adams. Still, the black stuff does well. “We sell quite a bit of Guinness,” said Keith Douglas, the bar manager. “We sell a lot of Sam Adams, too, but they’re neck and neck. I’ve been tending bar for 17 years, and they are drinking more Guinness than they did ten years ago.”

Why does he think Guinness does so well? “I think the microbrew influx got people to think outside of the box of the Big 3 brewers,” he said. “It opened people’s eyes to the idea that there’s something out there besides what Dad drank.” I saw the same thing in Philadelphia when Yuengling arrived: once the idea takes hold that there’s a choice in beer beyond the usual, it turns the whole market on its head.

You have to be able to take advantage of the opportunity, of course. “Guinness has great marketing,” Douglas acknowledged, “and it’s a great product. I’m a big Guinness fan, myself.”

He’s not alone. “You can’t pigeonhole it as a drink for old Irish-American men, either,” he said. “Guinness sells across the board, all different ages, men and women. We’re an Irish bar, but we’re also in a very diverse neighborhood, and it appeals to all sorts of people. We’ve got Guinness on tap, and Smithwick’s, Harp, and Murphy’s stout; we had Smithwick’s since it came in. I’d say 3O% of our beer sales is Irish, but Guinness is the lion’s share.”

Over in Cambridge, at The Druid, John at the bar told me that he’s selling it about the same way. “Guinness? It’s about one beer in five, I would guess,” he said. “A lot of people drink it here, they say it’s a very good pint. That’s what keeps things busy, along with the food; it’s really good, and at a good price. A lot of restaurants are hurting these days, the ones that are more upscale. People still have to eat, so they’re taking the cheaper option.”

But he hasn’t seen the growth that Keith mentions, just a steady pour after pour. “It’s about the same,” he said, then laughed. “You either drink it or you don’t. It’s not a beer you can switch on and off of.”

A different breed of cat.
Guinness – all the Irish stouts – are quite different from any other beer that sells in volume. As I said ten years ago in these pages: “Guinness runs counter to all major trends in the beer business. Picture the top ten imports: see-through pilsner, see-through pilsner, see-through pilsner, black thing, see-through pilsner . . . Face it, the beer is black, it’s not even a little bit transparent, it is black. The carbonation (to be precise, it’s a mix of carbonation and nitrogenation) is gentle, not fizzy. It’s an ale, not a lager.”

Yet people like it, and as John put it, “It’s not a beer you can switch on and off of.” Maybe it’s inevitable that something so different and so beloved would spawn some odd myths that turn out not to be so. For instance, people will tell you that the Guinness Stout in Ireland is different. Not so, according to Dana Yerid, Brand Director for Guinness: “All the Guinness sold in the UK, Ireland and North America is brewed in Ireland at the historic St. James’s Gate Brewery in Dublin.”

Other sources in Diageo have told me that the draft Guinness poured in Ireland could just as easily have been poured in the Black Rose; it’s just a matter of which truck it went out on. What might be different is freshness and turnover. Guinness in Ireland is only days old, as compared to the two weeks it takes to get to a bar in Boston. Irish bars also tend to go through Guinness a lot more quickly, keeping the kegs fresher. Sorry, but it really is the same beer. Find a place that serves a lot of it, and try a jar there.

People will also tell you that Guinness is “the beer that eats like a meal!” Silly: 12 ounces of Guinness has only 125 calories, only one more than a bottle of Sam Adams Light. Do I have to tell you that when the same people tell you how Guinness will “mess you up!” that they’re talking out of their hat as well? Guinness is only 4.1% ABV, less than a light beer. People just think that dark beers are stronger – they’re not, necessarily – and that the creamy nitro body of Guinness is full of calories – it’s not, it’s just texture. Guess it comes with being a black, opaque secret.

Straightening out the record.
Guinness is not just opaque itself, until recently it has had a somewhat opaque history as well. Read most purported beer histories and “style guides”, and you will be told that porter was “invented” in 1722 and that stout is a clearly different beer. You’ll be told – over and over and over – that the bright line dividing porter from stout on the Dark Ale Continuum is that stout has roasted barley in the mashbill, while porter does not; the roasted barley having been added by Arthur Guinness to avoid taxes on malt.

Pardon my Irish, but bullshit. Or, if you prefer, “actually, milord, that turns out not to be the case.” I’ve suspected this for years, having thought that porter, stout, and for that matter, beers like Ipswich Dark Ale, are simply points along that Dark Ale Continuum, in much the same manner as the differences among helles, Dortmunder Export, pilsner, and hellerbock being mostly a matter of how much malt or hops a brewer puts in the beer, rather than what kind, or what he does with them.

Now I have proof, thanks to some dedicated bloggers in Europe, chief among them being Ron Pattinson, who has a blog titled “Shut Up About Barclay Perkins”. Pattinson has an odd approach to writing about beer history: he actually does things like visit the archives, dig out old brewers’ notebooks, and look at the numbers.

His conclusions are starting to come out over months of posting, and they’re turning things on their heads, at least in the tiny world of people who care about this stuff. Stout really was just a stronger version of porter, and after a while, not that much stronger. Roasted barley is a recent addition to stout, having only happened in the period between the world wars (for quite a while before that, adding roasted barley to beer was illegal in Ireland; in fact, in the early 18OOs it wasn’t even allowed to be on the brewery premises). And nowadays, of course, American brewers put anything they want in either porter or stout. Myself, I can’t wait ’til Pattinson’s book on the subject comes out . . . probably sometime in 2O11.

What does all that matter? Well, it makes for interesting discussions when the beer geeks come in your store and start telling other customers about porter. But I think it also teaches us that what’s said about the beer – any beer – is perhaps much less important than how it tastes, how it’s served, how it’s priced, and how fresh it is, a lesson that never gets old.

Selling it.
Another lesson that can’t be overlooked is that although the Irish brand managers – beer and whiskey both – tell you that Irish booze sells all year round now . . . there’s still a huge St. Patrick’s Day bump. “We take the tables out,” said Douglas at Doyle’s. “We open at 9am and there’s a line around the corner by 11. I expect nothing less this year, economy or not. People, if they have to, they’ll save up for that day, especially to get here. It’s a destination.”

One of the bartenders at James’s Gate, also in Jamaica Plain, a guy named Bobby, told a similar story. “It gets packed,” he said, “you’ve got to stop letting people in sometimes. The year before we had the Harpoon bagpiper walking around the pub, it was awesome. I’m not expecting any difference this year. I hope not!”

John at The Druid just said, “It’s busy, but if you’re an Irish bar and you’re not busy on St. Pat’s, you may as well give up.”

It works off-premise too, naturally, and a smart retailer never overlooks it. “I promote Guinness during St. Patrick’s Day, and I do a hot price on 12-packs,” said Dave Cummings, Store Manager at Yankee Spirit down in Attleboro. “They put a draft system in here [for samples] and brought in three girls, and I sold 165 cases of the draught cans in three days. I’m not kidding.”

“You have to be active, you can’t just sit back and expect people to walk through the doors,” agreed Joe Santos, the GM at Julio’s Liquors in Westborough. “We definitely promote our Irish beers during St. Patrick’s Day. We advertise for it, we have displays for all the traditional beers – anything to drive sales. It’s basic. Times are tough, you have to give people a reason to come in.”

Santos says the best-seller is “Definitely the can with the widget. People are always after the closest they can get to the draft taste, and that’s it. If we’re out of the cans, they’d rather not even have it. We do sell a good amount of the Extra Stout. I don’t think every store carries it, they don’t have the ability to carry that many SKUs, so we get the sales.”

Dana Yerid is there to help with the support. “We offer many promotional activities to drive sales in the off-premise in Massachusetts,” she said, “including Halloween Mixology Programs, Holiday Sweepstakes, support for St. Patrick’s Day. We also offer our current “Unite to Make St. Patrick’s Day an Official Holiday” POS.”

Dominant as it is, it’s not all Guinness. “The Irish reds, Smithwick’s, the Sam Adams, they do well,” said Santos. “People are always looking for something different with a little more character. We do a very good business with the Sam Adams Irish Red. We get a lot of people in from Ireland, lot of engineers traveling to the industrial parks around here. So we keep that selection up.”

Sam Adams Irish Red isn’t the only “Irish” beer that isn’t brewed in Ireland. “Everyone perceives Killian’s Irish Red as Irish, even though it’s brewed in Colorado,” said Cummings. “That sells well over the holiday.”

No matter where you are – Germany, Belgium, Dublin, Jamaica Plain – or what you’re drinking – Guinness, Smithwick’s, Killian’s – there’s Irish beers to be had. St. Patrick’s Day looks likely to weather any economic storm that may come along, so you’d be wise to prepare.

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