Stout to the Top

If it didn’t have such negative connotations, you’d say that Guinness hangs over Ireland’s food and drink industry like a great black cloud.

Guinness has so dominated its market that not only has the beer it produces become synonymous with all things Irish but the company name has almost become the generic name for the beer style.

During the last 250 years a one-time independent and small brewer founded a dynasty that has become so powerful it was able to merge with another company to form the world’s biggest drinks empire, known as Diageo.

And just in the last 30 years it transformed a beer style most often associated with old ladies and turned it in to a celebration of all that is young, vital and Irish.

Such a huge black cloud does of course come with its down side. The sheer dominance of Guinness in Ireland has stifled competition and made a diverse and exciting beer industry all but impossible. It has traditionally been aided in doing so by tax laws that gave no advantage to newcomers, and as a result the microbrewery boom that has helped revitalise ale production elsewhere has been slow to take root in Ireland. On the up side, though, Guinness has helped put Ireland on the map.

At the outset Arthur Guinness bought his brewery and started producing top quality beer at a time when Dublin hosted about 70 breweries, most of them poor and struggling.

Guinness may well have expedited the demise of those breweries but it is possible that they had no future anyway.

More than that, while Ireland clearly had its own beer, it was not a beer nation. Pot still whiskey and poteen were its drinks of choice. Long before St Patrick’s Day became a worldwide excuse for a hoolie, before every groom-to-be wanted his stag weekend in Dublin, and generations before the green tiger rode across the land and gave Ireland a standing in the world as a centre for fun and fashion, Guinness played a crucial role in promoting Ireland and turning the eyes of tourism towards it.

And if you’re going to have a beer monopoly, you could do far worse than Guinness. It might be brewed in 35 countries now and much of it might be relatively homogenised, but in its finest form it is an outstanding beer and ale lovers should note that Ireland is the last country in the world where the majority of the beer is still top-fermented. Our greatest beer writers, Michael Jackson and Roger Protz, both include Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, in their top beer lists.

Article continues in Issue 2 of Beers of the World

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