While We’re Away: Guinness in the Archives

We know blogs are ephemeral and that you’re just supposed to let a post disappear once it’s had its moment but we’ve got lots in the archive that we reckon newer readers might have missed. So, while we’re away on holiday, we thought we’d resurface a few bits on Guinness.

First, a big one, and not a blog post: for All About Beer back in June 2016 we pondered on how Guinness has managed to lose its edge, from being the go-to choice for discerning drinkers to the subject of scorn. After a lot of picking and digging, we reckon we managed to work it out:

Beers that are around for a long time often come to be perceived as Not What They Used to Be (see also Pilsner Urquell, for example). Sometimes that is down to jaded palates, or is the result of a counter-cultural bias against big brands and big business. Both of those might apply to Guinness but there is also objective evidence of a drop in quality, or at least of essential changes to the product…. Guinness has tended to be secretive about process, recipes and ingredients but we do know, for example, that the temperature of draught Guinness dropped significantly from about 1988 onward, falling from a typical 12 degrees Celsius to a target of 7 degrees. This is one thing that caused those drinkers of traditional cask-conditioned ale who had regarded draught Guinness as the one tolerable keg beer to turn against it.


1970s photograph of two men in horn-rimmed glasses inspecting beer.
Tommy Marling takes the temperature of draught Guinness watched by Mr Bill Steggle, licensee of the Cock at Headley near Epsom.

Here on the blog we also looked into what old in-house magazines from Guinness’s London brewery at Park Royal can tell us about the roll-out of the draught Guinness we know today:

“In 1946 when old-stagers with us now were breaking in their 32″ bottom demob suits our metal cask department was formed and managed by E.J. Griffiths. His assistant was Jack Moore now regional manager in Leeds. Even in 1946 the houses which specialised in draught Guinness such as Mooneys and Wards were being supplied from Park Royal ‘in the wood’. Don’t forget, we still had a cooperage and there was no tanker delivery.”


A sardine/sild sandwich.

Beyond beer, Guinness also had a huge impact on the birth of ‘pub grub’, as readers of 20th Century Pub will know. Here, from November 2016, is our filleting of Guinness’s 1961 recipe book for publicans, which was published as part of the brewery’s drive to get more food into pubs:

[In] October 1962, the newly-formed Snack Demonstration Team hit the road in [a] fabulous Mystery-Machine-alike [van]… Four days a week for the latter part of that year, lecturer Jo Shellard (an actor turned caterer) and his assistant Clint Antell toured the North West of England (where pub food was particularly wanting, we assume) speaking to groups of publicans ‘and their wives’.


And there’s lots more, if you want it:

British Beer Exports in Pictures

Ron Pattinson at Shut Up About Barclay Perkins has recently been mining data to tell the story of British beer exports in the 20th century. We thought we’d compliment that with some pictures from our collection of in-house magazines.

The pictures come from editions of The Red BarrelThe House of Whitbread and Guinness Time, mostly from the 1960s and 70s. (Yes, Guinness is Irish, but had it’s corporate HQ and a huge brewery in London from 1932.) It’s pretty well content free but we have plans to write something more substantial about all this at some point in the future.

Belgium
A Belgian pub.
Whitbread’s Taverne Nord, Boulevard Adolphe Max, Brussels, c.1933.
A portrait of a man in an office.
C. De Keyser, Whitbread’s Belgian sales manager from 1937.

Continue reading “British Beer Exports in Pictures”

Bristol: Ground Zero for Guinness in England

“In 1819 a sailing vessel ex-Dublin discharged ten barrels of Guinness porter in Bristol. It was the first bulk order for England that can be traced in the Guinness books. This was probably the first sign of the imminent expansion of the Guinness company. One might have expected this token invasion to have started at Liverpool for it is a short haul of 140 miles from St James’s Gate to the Mersey, but twice that distance to Bristol.”

The above comes from an article in Guinness Time, the in-house magazine of Guinness’s London brewery at Park Royal, for the summer of 1966. It goes on to explain that the Guinness family had relations in Bristol which might explain the oddity, but also suggests other more likely reasons: the North West was locked down by big brewers for one thing, and Bristol was effectively the nation’s second city at that time.

Dockside scene with huge Guinness tanks.
The Pluto unloading in Bristol c.1966.

In 1966, Bristol was still a major destination for Guinness, with two ships arriving every week from Dublin, carrying between 1,400 and 2,000 barrels each. Pluto (998 tons) set out from Dublin every Friday, stopping on the way at Waterford to pick up Draught Guinness tankards from the glassworks there, arriving in Bristol at 8 on Monday morning. Her sister, Dido, at 1,598 tons, arrived in Bristol every Thursday.

The Guinness Store, AKA the Dublin Store, was on Broad Quay (the long low building at the waterside, pictured above in 1910) and held the beer at 10°C ready for dispatch in bulk for bottling at 23 breweries in the region. It also held Harp Lager and Draught Guinness kegs from the brewery London. Intriguingly, there were apparently three pubs in the region still receiving ‘unpressurised Draught Guinness’ (so, cask-conditioned?) direct from Dublin at this time. We’ll have to see if we can find out which ones.

Harry Mico (seated) and his foreman, Wally Loud.

The head office for Guinness in the West Country was at Clifton, covering Swindon to Land’s End, as well as South Wales. Harry Mico, a veteran Guinness man who joined the company in 1924, managed the Store, while the Western Sales Area manager was L.J.G. Showers, a former Gurkha officer shipped back to England from India after 1947. The Bristol Office manager was Brian Vernall, a former brewer and marketing man who got the job when his predecessor in Bristol died in 1965.

We’ll have to investigate what, if anything, is left of Guinness’s operation in Bristol. The Store has certainly gone, the Quay filled in and the road diverted, but perhaps there might be some trace of the office in Clifton.

In the meantime, we’re going to have to find a pint of cask stout somewhere in Bristol this weekend.

Guinness in London, 1965

Which London pub was the best place for a pint of Guinness in London in the 1960s? None of them, really, according to Gerard Fay.

His article ‘My Goodness…’ collected in The Compleat Imbiber Vol. 8, published in 1965 and edited by Cyril Ray, is another source of information on a subject we’ve been circling round and prodding at for a couple of years now: Irish pubs before ‘Irish Pubs’ and the high status of Guinness before Guinness®. There have been a few blog posts here, a substantial article at All About Beer, and there’s also a bit on this in the upcoming book, 20th Century Pub. (Although we cut a lot from that section in the final edit.) But it’s always good to have new nuggets of information.

Fay was London editor of the Guardian until 1966 and died in 1969 at the age of 55. Their obituary for him is weirdly vague about his origins (‘of Irish stock with strong Lancashire connections’) but he seems to have spent most of his childhood in Dublin and certainly described himself as a ‘Dublin boy’. As a Fleet Street diehard he worked in the vicinity of some of the best-known Irish pubs in London and here’s what he had to say about them:

There were once three Mooneys near each other in London — Holborn, Fleet Street and, to fortify the walker’s spirits between the two, Fetter Lane. Before the coming of Formica the Fleet Street one was distinguished by being more like a genuine Dublin pub than anything left in the City of Dublin itself — neither Fetter Lane nor Holborn was of the right shape. The argument often raged about which of the three produced the best pint of Guinness, and the verdict usually went to Fetter lane because of some virtue in the cellarage. To a coarse palate the Fetter Lane pint seemed as smooth as any drawn in any Dublin pub chosen by serious-minded drinkers as a ‘good house for a pint’. Visiting Dubliners denied this and would have none of the English blarney about Park Royal brewery being the equal of St James’s Gate.

Tipperary back bar.

Once again, there’s a suggestion of mysticism and magic around Guinness, and especially the stuff from Dublin rather than the London-brewed (Park Royal) product. Fifty years on this kind of thing is still heard even though the time when Guinness was anything other than a standardised product was in the process of passing even as Fay was writing:

As Guinness is beer, it is subject to all the complications of cellerage and of being properly kept — though the introduction of metal casks has done away with a lot of this… [The] argument is seldom heard now — the Holborn Mooney’s closed when the lease expired: the others both use metal containers and continue to sell their large and increasing quota.

The Fetter Lane Mooney’s, AKA The Shamrock AKA The Magpie & Stump, is long gone but the Fleet Street branch — The Tipperary — is still there. When we visited a couple of years ago we rather liked it. It looks like a tourist trap but, with veteran Irish staff and mostly Irish customers, didn’t feel like one, and is rather gorgeously decorated, having reverted to something like its pre-Formica look. It’s at least worth sticking your nose in the door next time you pass, even if Guinness isn’t quite the draw it used to be.

Guinness, But Better

Two stouts, side by side, in stem glasses.

Guinness Antwerpen, an 8% ABV stout currently on sale in Tesco supermarkets, is very much a step in the right direction.

We bought our bottles there at £2 per 330ml. It is a version of the strong stout Guinness has been exporting to Belgium since 1944, known as Special Export Stout, or SES. Ratebeer treats them as the same beer.

We set about the first one with some expectations of a good time. SES isn’t a beer we know well, or can easily get hold of, so Antwerpen is effectively a new beer to us, and to many others. We’d seen opposing views in throwaway comments on social media — it’s great, it’s awful — but there were some people we trust in the former camp. People who we think are objective and who won’t hold Guinness’s sinister megabrewery status against it.

It is a dense black beer with a milky-coffee-coloured head. The body is similarly chewy and tongue-coating. It tastes rich, exotic and round. Some people might find it sweet but there is also what we perceived as a sour note to take the edge off, bringing to mind cherries and prunes. There is also a bare hint of savoury Marmite adding another layer of interest without intruding. It’s how we remember Ellezeloise Hercule Stout tasting when we drank a lot of it at The Pembury Tavern in Hackney Downs years ago — every so slightly off kilter, faintly funky, without being weird or challenging.

We were sufficiently surprised by just how much we liked it that we went back to the shop to get more bottles the next day. We also took the opportunity to answer a question posed by Steve Lamond of Beers I’ve Known: what does this beer bring to the party that the standard Foreign Extra doesn’t?

Foreign Extra (FES) is the 7.5% beer you see in supermarkets and corner shops at about £1.50-£2 per 330ml. It’s a benchmark for fellow blogger Ed: why spend more on a would-be imperial stout if it’s not better than FES? It’s a beer we drink from time to time and enjoy but not for a while and we recalled something quite different to Antwerpen. So we added a bottle of that to our shopping basket, too.

We tried both beers side by side, one of us pouring so that the other could taste (somewhat, unscientifically) blind. It was immediately obvious that these were different beers. FES is thinner, fizzier, harsher and more metallic. It tastes more like standard Guinness, somehow — rather burnt-sugar bitter, and blunt. But, at the same time, we had forgotten just how good it is and will certainly be making a point of getting some in if (when) the Antwerpen supply dries up.

As for Antwerpen, well, on a second pass, with FES for light and shade, impressed us just as much. It’s just got another dimension to it that lifts it up.

We had one last doubt: what if it was simply the glamour of that extra 0.5% on the ABV that had us fooled? So we diluted samples of each with water, as we learned to do on a gin-tasting tour a few years ago. Antwerpen’s flavour shone through: it tasted like standard Guinness, but better.

No-one is looking at Guinness complaining that they don’t make a decent lager, or pale ale, or saison. This is what people want from them: stout, but better. Not wacky, or adulterated, or overloaded with grassy hops — just better.