There’s an old saying in England that when the ravens leave the Tower of London, the monarchy will fall. Is there, I wonder, a similar maxim in Ireland when sales of Guinness slump: the Blarney Stone turning to dust, perhaps?
The shock news at the end of summer was that consumption of Guinness was down between 8 and 9% over the past 12 months in its homeland. It was news that created considerable media attention in both Ireland and Britain, as the Black Stuff is such an iconic drink in both countries. It led to speculation that Diageo, the international drinks group that owns Guinness, as well as the likes of Smirnoff Vodka, Blossom Hill Wine, Captain Morgan Rum and Johnnie Walker Whisky, might hive off its brewing interests to concentrate on wines and spirits. That won’t happen, as Guinness continues to perform well worldwide and has just entered Russia, one of the fastest-growing beer markets on the planet.
But the downward trend in Ireland is clearly worrying. Several reasons have been advanced for the decline. Guinness in Ireland is sold predominantly on draft. There is a limited supply of the bottled version and no canned stout at all. Ireland has followed New York City and California with a smoking ban in public places and this has been blamed for driving drinkers from bars to their homes, where they drink wine or packaged lager. The American experience indicates that people do return to bars when they have learned to live without nicotine or to use heated patios, but the English pub trade, which faces a smoking ban next summer, is looking nervously at the impact in Ireland.
The Guinness slump is also blamed on changing life style. According to some, drinking pints of stout is seen as old-fashioned or cloth-cap. Ireland, with an economy primed by generous handouts from the European Union, is putting money in pockets and younger drinkers are seeking trendier drinks than the ubiquitous glass of stout.
And then there is the problem of serving temperature. It may come as a shock to readers in North America, but on this side of the pond drinkers don’t want near-frozen beer. Diageo launched Extra Cold Guinness in both Ireland and Britain a few years ago and—pardon the pun—caught a cold.
Jim Costello, head barman at Toner’s in central Dublin, spoke for many in his trade when he said: “The company messed up the taste, putting in Extra Cold Guinness. Most bars, like us, have had those taps taken out now. It was tasteless.”
Guinness has also been badly hit by a new brand called Magners, which has taken off like the proverbial steam train in Ireland and Britain, with sales up 250% in the past year. It’s apple cider and its success is so phenomenal that vast sums are being invested in the plant at Clonmel in County Tipperary to keep up with demand. In the interests of research, I bought a bottle of Magners and found it so sweet and cloying that I feared for what remains of the enamel on my teeth.
At the same time, just to reassure myself, I bought a bottle of the divine Guinness Foreign Export Stout: roasty, deeply hoppy and with that slightly musty aroma that brewers call “horse blanket.” I have to report, however, that my teenage son finished the Magners and declared it, in the modern vernacular of young Brits, to be “well good.”
Beer lovers have a fight on their hands.
Fuller’s brewery reception room in West London was packed to the rafters with beer writers in September for a memorable tasting of the company’s bottle-fermented Vintage Ale. The 2006 version, just launched, marks the tenth anniversary of the beer and it was fascinating to judge how well the various vintages have matured and developed over the years.
The beer is 8.5% volume and every year head brewer John Keeling, following in the footsteps of his illustrious and now retired predecessor Reg Drury, fashions a vintage using different varieties of malt and hops. For example, the 2006 vintage is brewed using floor-malted Optic with Fuggles and Super Styrian hops. Long ago, in 1997, the first vintage used pale malts from eastern and northern England and three hops: Challenger, Northdown and Target. At other times, Maris Otter has been the chosen barley with First Gold and Goldings adding fruity and peppery hop character.
We sipped, supped and marvelled at the complexity and depth of these remarkable beers. They are available in the U.S., so prepare for a taste explosion.
Roger Protz is the author of Complete Guide to World Beer and 300 Beers to Try Before You Die. He is a respected beer authority and editor of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide.