The Perfect Pint

A review of Bill Yenne's,
Guinness: The 250-Year Quest for the Perfect Pint.

Bill Yenne sums it up perfectly: technically, Guinness Stout is a "stout porter"; but culturally, it is an icon. After all, what other beer goes through such a ritual before it's served? Yenne's book,
Guinness, does justice to both the beer and its history.

That history begins at St. James's Gate in Dublin, which boasted a colorful cast of characters even before Arthur Guinness built his brewery there. The old medieval gate, through which pilgrims passed, was the site of an annual festival where the main item on offer was ale. Yes, a beer festival.

Guinness and his descendants were smart enough to keep a family business going for generations, but the real key to its success was technology. One of the unsung heroes is Michael Ash, a scientist who gave us the now-familiar Guinness Draught. Before his invention came along (in 1959, the brewery's bicentennial), Guinness was served strictly in bottles. The custom then was for the bar patron to keep his glass and pour the beer as he saw fit. Ash also developed what eventually became the "widget," which releases nitrogen inside the can and provides a waterfall effect, much like you see at your friendly local.

Guinness is as much an symbol of Ireland as Brian Boru's harp (a version of which has been part of the trademark since 1862). But to the consternation of Irish-Americans, the Guinness family itself were Protestants and, for quite a while, members of the British nobility. They were, however, philanthropists and by the standards of their time, relatively liberal.

The brewery was also a British company for much of its existence, thanks to a Victorian-age version of IPO mania. Defying warnings from the financial press that Guinness was a bad investment because the brewing industry was stagnant and had no barriers to entry, investors heavily over-subscribed the offering. For decades afterward, company headquarters were in London.

Until well into the 20th century, the way Guinness was marketed bore no resemblance to today's promotion-heavy approach. This was a company run by brewers, and the head brewer was assisted by Gentlemen on Duty--G.O.Ds if you please. For a long time the Guinness family thought advertising was beneath the dignity of their product. But times changed, and Guinness's advertising gave us some of breweriana's great works of art, in particular those posters featuring toucans, sea lions, and ostriches. Not to mention the famous--but sadly, now politically incorrect--slogan, "Guinness is Good For You."

The best-known promotion of all, of course, is the
Guinness Book of Records. It started with an effort to settle an argument between a brewery executive and his hunting companion. (The question that started it was, "did a grouse fly faster than a plover?"). The two gentleman enlisted a pair of British sportswriters, who eventually compiled a record book. Only a few thousand copies of the original edition of the record book, and these were intended as giveaway items in pubs. The book went on to become the largest-selling copyrighted book of all time–and gave the brand countless millions of dollars worth of publicity.

For decades, Guinness was sold through a network of distributors who were likely to put their own trademark--usually an animal--on the bottle in place of the Guinness mark itself. As you can imagine, quality control was a concern of management, which responded by creating one of the most appealing jobs of all time: the World Traveller. The accounts of these gents are considered some of the best beer journalism of all time.

The author poses an interesting "what if" question. In the 1940s, Guinness bought a brewery in New York City, as part of a long-range plan to penetrate the U.S. market. The company had considered brewing on the West Coast. Had it done so, what effect would that have had on American craft brewing? Something to discuss the next time over a pint or two.

Guinness is as pleasant a read as the beer meant to accompany it. Yenne's credentials, include more than 40 books on historical topics, along with extensive writing about beer and brewing history, make him an ideal storyteller. The only weak point comes late in the book, and it's not the author's fault. It's hard to keep readers interested in a company that was no longer a family business (the family connection ended in 1992) into an drinks conglomerate with a name that only a consultant could love.

Even so, Yenne ends his story on a high note, introducing us to Ferghal Murray, who tends to his craft with the passion and perfectionism of the master brewers who came before him. Murray's mission is to pour the perfect pint. He even offers instructions. But it's up to you to find the perfect pub to drink it in.