My first taste of beer was from a sip of Guinness at a pub in Birmingham, England. I was 19 years old and legal to drink in the U.K., and I wanted to find out what all the fuss was about. The bitter taste of the beer was enough to squelch any desire for more than that one sip, and it was several years before I began to develop a taste for any sort of alcohol.
Even after I began drinking beer, I still did not care for the taste of Guinness. At first it was too strong, but then as I began my current love affair with Pacific Northwest-style hoppy ales, the flavor of Guinness seemed to weaken in comparison. "Why would I want to drink that?" I would say to my friends, "It tastes too watered down." Eventually, I came to the conclusion that most of what makes Guinness so special in the U.S. is the "Irishness" — the appeal of something exotic. After reading Bill Yenne's book on the history of the company, I have discovered that my uninformed opinion was not too far off the mark.
The founder, Arthur Guinness, used the inheritance from his godfather to purchase a Dublin brewery in 1759, where he brewed the popular English-style porter. His brewery was much like any other of the time, with one advantage being that it was near a body of water which allowed for easier transport of raw materials and finished product. Over time, the beers produced by the brewery grew in popularity, both nationally and internationally. With the aid of a few inventions that made the unique qualities of the beer more consistent, and also some very effective marketing campaigns, that little brewery has grown to become one of the largest beverage corporations in the world, second only to perhaps Coca-Cola.
The story of Guinness, from the perspective of a beer lover, is absolutely fascinating until the early-1960s, and this is evidenced by the amount of words Yenne devotes to the first two hundred years of the brewery's history. For instance, I knew that Guinness beer in the U.K., or Ireland in particular, is different from Guinness beer elsewhere, but I didn't know the history of why until I read this book. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention, and the variations that made the exported brew what it is were necessitated by the difficulties of global exportation in a pre-industrial world.
Necessity also is what prompted the creation of the nitrogenation process that happens in the special metal kegs used by the brewery, as well as the widget found in bottles and cans of Guinness Draught. Much like he does elsewhere in the book, Yenne explains both of these inventions, as well as the pressures that caused them to come into being, in a way that is understandable to the layperson. Part of what makes a Guinness Draught what it is comes from the creation of the frothy head, and without the aforementioned processes and tools, it would be difficult to create the proper head every time a pint is drawn or poured.
In the 1960s, the focus of the company shifted away from brewing the "perfect pint" and more towards getting that pint into every single home in the world. The export side of the company expanded into more countries, and more Guinness breweries were set up around the world, in addition to licensing agreements with regional breweries. In the 1970s, the focus drifted even further away from beer as the company began acting like any other global corporation. Guinness bought and sold non-beverage oriented interests, merged and diversified, and in general focused on steadily increasing profits in whatever way the corporate leadership determined would be best at the time. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn't.
Yenne has written an engaging book that is accessible even to the pedestrian beer drinker. His research is thorough, and the bibliography at the end of the book has a few titles that caught my eye as potential future reads. Although the book pulls back the curtain on the company, it still managed to convince this reader that there must be something truly special about Guinness beer, even though my own experiences have proven otherwise.
What surprises me is that by the end of the book, rather than feeling disillusioned and cynical about the company as I do now, Yenne seems to be even more a Guinness fanboy than he was before. Determined to see if my newfound knowledge of the beer's history and Yenne's enthusiasm would influence my opinion of it, I went down to the local pub with a friend. As I sat there, sipping my pint of Guinness that tasted no different than any other Guinness I'd tasted before, I decided that perhaps I needed to try a pint in Ireland someday before completely giving up. It could be that they're watering it down for the American market.