Peter Owen Ltd (May 22, 2008)
Soft cover, $32.95, 262 pp.
Two days after Arthur Guinness died in 1803, the Dublin Evening Post published a short mention of his death, noting he was “long known and respected in the city of Dublin; the worthy and good will regret him because his life has been useful, benevolent and virtuous.” It hardly read like the obituary of an icon who founded a brewing dynasty.
More words may not have been written about a single beer, brewery and brewing family than about the Guinness clan, their business and Guinness Stout. Yet just as the Evening Post didn’t foresee the place Arthur Guinness would claim in history, few historians have examined his life in particular depth. Quite simply, because of his humble social standing, authors in the nineteenth century didn’t consider Arthur Guinness worthy of a biography, and much traditional source material can no longer be found.
As a result Arthur’s Round: The Life and Times of Brewing Legend Arthur Guinness, first published last year in Great Britain, may not be the book you expect. It is not chock full of ribald exchanges or rich with specifics about the birth of the famous stout and what it first tasted like.
However author and family member Patrick Guinness has assembled a biography thick with detail, including original source material previously not published. He also draws upon the many Guinness histories, sometimes chastising them for their inaccuracies. Establishing these straw dogs doesn’t always work, in part because he recites a few beer “facts,” such as those about the origins of porter, that are just plain wrong.
That would matter more were this a book primarily about beer. It’s not. A reader looking for an ode to Guinness the Beer would likely be happier with something like Guinness: The 250 Year Quest for the Perfect Pint by Bill Yenne.
Instead, Patrick Guinness—a student of Dublin’s past—chooses to use eighteenth century Ireland to frame this history. The book is about Arthur Guinness first, Ireland second and beer third. “One aim of biography is to examine the subject as a man of his time; while the man can be described, every reader will have a different idea of the time,” Patrick Guinness writes in the preface. In the process he presents Arthur as an “every man,” one of many in Ireland who started with little and became a success in the 1700s.
It takes some effort to get to know Arthur Guinness and the Ireland of 250 years ago. Without snappy quotes and funny stories the narrative is often as dry as Guinness Stout itself. There’s much more about politics and social networks than beer, and really nothing about the stout that hasn’t already been recorded. Fortunately, Patrick Guinness understands why readers would take the time for a round with Arthur. “This book is a tribute to the man who made one drink virtually synonymous with the country of Ireland,” he writes.