Tag: St Patrick’s day

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Guinness back to what it does best

It really is good for you.

Ah, St Patrick’s Day: guaranteed to drive some angsty beer geeks to ask why everyone insists on drinking Guinness when there are so many superior stouts available, and explain to their friends that it’s not really an Irish beer at all because it was derived from London’s porter tradition, so really the whole of Paddy’s Day is a sham, and anyway it’s an Irish festival and we’re not Irish so why are we celebrating this one instead of celebrating with real ale on St Georges Day?

And no one listens to them. Instead, everyone else sees it simply as an excuse to spend another boozy night in the pub enjoying themselves, buying into a version of the Irish craic that may not have anything true about it, but is perfectly good fun nonetheless, if you’re in the mood for it.

Guinness is facing an interesting time at the moment. It’s the very best illustration out there of our declining need for big brand reassurance in the beer market. In the late nineteenth century, when brewers floated on the stock exchange to raise funds to buy the pubs that sold their beers, Guinness followed a different path, building a singular, iconic brand rather than a tied estate of pubs selling a range of different beers. Throughout the twentieth century, it didn’t matter whether you were drinking in a Whitbread, Courage or Watney’s pub, a freehouse or a managed pub – you had to have Guinness on the bar. Pretenders like Murphy’s came and went, but consistent investment in building a brand that looked like no other kept Guinness strong. There aren’t many brands that enjoy seeing tourists actually spending money to buy copies of their adverts from seventy or eighty years ago.

Three for a tenner on Portobello Road
This brand strength has meant that Guinness can get away with charging pubs more than other beers. I’ve spoken to publicans who feel bitter, almost held to ransom, who believe they must have Guinness on their bar even if it means paying through the nose for it. And market research shows why: in the late nineties, more people claimed to drink Guinness than any other beer brand. Some of them may have only drunk it on one day of the year; others were simply lying – they liked to think of themselves as Guinness drinkers, or be seen by others as Guinness drinkers, even if they didn’t actually like the taste. 
Things are different now. Brewers such as Brains, Fullers, and Wadworth are developing their own 4.0-4.2% nitrokeg stouts and discovering that Guinness is pretty easy to copy. When they put it on the bar, they’re finding that these days, people who actually like the beer are OK not to have the brand – especially if their pint is a bit cheaper.
How did this happen?
Well, partly, it’s that mainstream brands have become boring and commoditised across the board, and drinkers are increasingly confident to try something that hasn’t been on the telly.
And partly it’s that the iconic advertising lost its mojo. 
When you’ve made a commercial that is routinely voted as the best TV ad of all time (an early work by the director of this year’s most talked about film) it’s a hard act to follow.
The last decade and a bit has seen huge budget Guinness ads that have been very easily forgettable, with the possible exception of this one:

which always seemed to reappear a few months after the latest misguided spectacular had quietly disappeared.

But suddenly, the mojo seems to have come back. Possibly the two best commercials I’ve seen in the last year both turned out to be for Guinness.

The first one pulls you in and you hesitate, worried that you’re going to like the film only for the rug to be pulled at the end and it turns out to be something cynical and cheesy. In fact the pay-off is quite moving, and fits perfectly with what Guinness wants to say about both itself and its drinkers.

And then there’s this beauty, which starts off so good you think you’re almost certainly going to be disappointed, and you’re not – thoughtful, spectacular and bang on for a brand that’s at least as popular in parts of Africa as it is in Ireland.

If you find this as compelling and beautiful as I do, you might also enjoy the five minute film they made:

These two are possibly the best beer ads we’ve seen in a decade. Whether they are enough to make Guinness as indispensable and irreplaceable as it once was, we’ll have to wait and see. But I would imagine that the Paddy’s Day toasts at St James’s Gate are a little easier this year than they have been.

Oh, and there’s one more beer bore cliché we have to get out of the way while talking about Guinness. If you think it’s just a tasteless, bland brand produced by a big corporation that is scared of flavour and has no idea about how to get it into their beer, that’s because you’ve fallen for the trap that there is only one Guinness. Last time I visited the brewery, we were given a tutored tasting of seven different Guinnesses that were all on sale at the time. If you do want a powerful stout that’s up there with the very best, seek out Guinness Foreign Extra Stout:

One of the best stouts in the world.

At 7.5%, rich and complex with vinous notes and spiciness twining around the usual big blocks of coffee and chocolate flavour, it’s a genuine classic that allegedly makes up over 40% of total Guinness sales worldwide. For those who take notice of these things, it scores 96% on Ratebeer and 91% on Beer Advocate.

Not bad for a dull, corporate global brand.


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Happy Paddy’s Day!

While I was writing Three Sheets I found this great book called Planet Party.  Basically it’s an analysis of ten of the world’s greatest festivals, from Munich’s Oktoberfest to the Mexican day of the Dead.

The central thesis of the book is that civilizations need rules, conformity and order to survive.  But as we live most of our lives like this, we also need occasionally to let off steam, to throw over the rules and routine and go a bit batshit, safe in the knowledge that everyone is doing so, that this is a temporary suspension of order, permissible anarchy.  Author Iain Gately then travels the world demonstrating this principle in every continent and culture on the planet.

The only problem with the book is that for such a joyous subject, he writes it in a very dry, semi-academic fashion.  Perhaps that’s partly why it’s now out of print.  Since reading it I’ve wanted to do a similar book, going to the most extreme drinking festivals on the planet, following the same principle but getting stuck in as I do so rather than observing from outside.  The publishers won’t buy it though: it feels too much like a direct sequel to Three Sheets, and that’s the poorest selling of my three books (it sold well – just not as well as the other two) and it feels like it would serve the law of diminishing returns.

I haven’t let that stop me enjoying myself along the paths Gately has illuminated though: I go to as many of these festivals as I can.  The Jack in the Green Festival in Hastings on May Bank Holiday is a marvellous release of pagan lust and joy until about 4pm, when everyone goes back home and puts the kettle on.  And I’ll soon be writing about various Wassails I went to in January – hundreds of people standing in a muddy farmyard at night in the middle of January, worshipping trees and getting riotously pissed, smack in the middle of the grimmest time of the year – it makes me tear up just thinking about what a wonderful expression of the human spirit this is.

Which brings us to St Patrick’s Day, celebrated around the world today.

Here’s are ten things that I really, really don’t want to talk about today, because it utterly misses the point (even though I might have done in the past – today is not the day):

  • How St Patrick wasn’t really Irish
  • Why we celebrate St Patrick more than our own patron saints
  • How tedious it is that everyone seeks an Irish connection
  • How the Paddy’s Day Angry Birds update is possibly racist
Did someone say “Thieving Irish pigs”?
  • Plastic paddies and bad Irish theme pubs
  • The fact that stout (or rather, the porter that led to it) actually originates from London
  • Opinions as to whether Guinness is any good or not in a world where we now have lots of quality stouts and porters
  • Whether or not Guinness tastes better in Ireland
  • Whatever Guinness is doing marketing/PR-wise on its biggest day of the year
  • Why people who drink Guinness today don’t drink it the rest of the year
What I shall be doing instead is marvelling at the way people across our entire planet use a flimsy excuse to give themselves permission to celebrate, not celebrating anything in particular, not really, but rather adopting an oversimplified version of one of the world’s greatest drinking cultures and pretending to be part of it for one night, knowing that everyone else in pubs and bars the world over is doing the same.  And I’ll be marvelling that beer is at the heart of this, that beer’s sociability, its miraculous ability to bring joy to its groups of drinkers, is at the core of the ritual. 
What will I be drinking myself?  Well, I’ll probably go to the Auld Shillelagh on Stoke Newington Church Street and fight my way to the bar in what is normally a quiet Irish pub, and have a couple of the best pints of Guinness in North London.  I might come home early and open the bottle of Otley porter I was sent for St David’s Day, or the stunning Imperial Stout that debuted the Meantime College Beer Club, or the Quantock Brewery Stout that won bronze in SIBA’s national bottled beer competition and turned up on my doorstep yesterday.  It doesn’t matter.  I’ll be drinking dark beer because that’s what you do on St Patrick’s Day.  It’s what everyone does.

And that is, in my view, what’s really worth celebrating.

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The Day after Paddy’s Day

Unbelievably, it’s six years since I was in Dublin for Paddy’s Day, at the start of my research for what became Three Sheets to the Wind. Which means it’s six years today that I had the scariest and most surreal cab journey of my life.

I wrote about it but it didn’t make it into the final book. It’s not really beer related as such, but it’s been sitting there in a folder for six years so I thought I might as well share it!
The story so far: I was in Ireland for a few days being a really crap traveller, utterly out of my depth. Liz joined me and we had a great Paddy’s Day, but I didn’t really get what I needed for the Irish chapter of the book – which meant that I would return a few months later and visit Galway. Somewhat downhearted, we hailed a cab to take us back to the airport, for our flight back to London…
Liz is unusually quiet and reflective on the way to the airport, in that we’re almost twenty seconds into the journey before she tells the cab driver that we’ve been here because I’m writing a book about beer. She gets a lot more than she bargained for in response. The driver turns around fully in his seat, away from the busy junction we’re rolling towards, to tell us that we are very, very welcome here. “That’s great. That’s really great. I’ve an idea for a book. Would you like to hear it?” Of course, we nod and say we would love to. He then spends the entire journey telling us how his sister had a relationship with a man from Eastern Europe who turned out to be a murderous thug. They went to live in Sweden, where the thug worked for a man who imported gold bullion. The thug’s job was to follow the people who bought the bullion back to their houses, kill them and take the gold back. Eventually, criminal mastermind and hired muscle had a falling out over the absurdly high bodycount their business was creating. Hired gun murdered mastermind, along with all his family, just to be on the safe side – except one son got away. This man then turned up at a wedding and massacred the hired gun and all his family, all except our cabbie’s sister, who was somehow spared. She took the hint and fled to South Africa, where she remains, too terrified to come back to Europe. But she took something valuable with her: the location of the spot where all the dodgy gold bullion had been buried, in a cemetery on the outskirts of Stockholm. She kept quiet about it for years, but when her brother, our cabbie, lost the multi-million pound fortune he had built up from property and ended up having to drive cabs, she told him the full story. He is now splitting his time between driving cabs in Dublin, and visiting Stockholm cemeteries to look for buried gold bullion and krugerrands. He has a man there doing research for him, and all our cab fares are going to pay for this man’s services. However, the trail seems to have gone suspiciously cold, so perhaps this contact is trying to claim the loot for himself. Our cabbie may have to go over to Stockholm again and, er, take care of him. He turns around to face us again, leaning over into the back of the car, his face close to ours, while doing seventy on the motorway. “D’ye think that might make a good book now?” I tell him that it would make a fantastic book and he must write it. I give him plenty of advice on how to get an agent and a publisher. Because the alternative is to tell him that he is mad, and I don’t want to do that, especially while he’s driving. I’d like to ask him, if he’s close to finding these missing millions, why he would want to blow it by writing the book and revealing the secret. He obviously believes his own story. The distressing thing is, it has so much detail and so many quirks of individuality I feel pretty sure there are shreds of truth in it somewhere. As I’m thinking this, he forgets about controlling the car altogether, reaches under his seat and brings out a 700-page pictorial guide to graveyards around Stockholm, starts showing us various pictures, asking us if we can read Swedish because he needs help with some of the passages. I want to scream so badly. I don’t recognise the road we’re on – I’m positive we’re not heading back to the airport the way I came in. We’re on a new motorway that’s still being built, and for the first time in my life, I visualise my own death. I know I’m going to be hacked up with a spade and buried in bin bags under a flyover. Then we’re at the airport. We leap out and get our bags. With my mouth I beg the driver to buy the Writer’s Handbook. With my eyes, I beg him not to kill us. We sprint through passport control, only relaxing when the plane finally pulls away from the gate and he isn’t on it.

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Happy St Paddy’s Day!

After having the naked audacity yesterday to suggest that a large regional brewer doing something that improves beer quality might actually be a Good Thing for beer drinkers, I’ve decided to completely blow any remaining credibility I might have with the miserable indie kid wing of the beer fraternity and write a post in praise of Guinness.

Beer Nut – I’m not necessarily calling you a miserable indie kid but I know how you feel on this particular issue. It might be best if you just look away now.
I like Guinness. Sorry, but I do. I like it as a brand – it’s stuck to its guns with mould-breaking, innovative creative advertising for eighty years now – and I occasionally like it as a beer. If there was a better porter or stout on the bar, of course I would choose to drink that instead. But the point is, in 99 out of 100 pubs, there isn’t a better porter or stout on the bar. There’s no porter or stout at all. Apart from Guinness. In fact when you think about it, the fact that Guinness – a dark, bitter stout – is as ubiquitous as it is in a world dominated by pale, tasteless imitation pilsners, it is a remarkable achievement. You might be about to comment that Guinness has been dumbed down and isn’t a patch on what it used to be. I’m not in a position to disagree with you. You might also be about to comment that Guinness isn’t a ‘real’ stout, that it’s way too bland or even that it actually tastes of nothing at all. There, I would have to disagree. Guinness is a big brand, one of the few beers that can truly claim to have a global presence. And the main reason it’s not even bigger? Survey after survey shows that the vast majority of beer drinkers find it too bitter, too challenging, too full-bodied. If Guinness were to reformulate to something as robust as the craft-brewed porters we all know and love, it would kill the brand stone dead. It might not be challenging to you, but it is to 99% of drinkers who ever come across it. And still it survives. The success of Guinness should actually give us hop that there are enough people who like challenging beer to make brewing something a bit more challenging worthwhile. If Guinness hadn’t kept the dark flame alive when porter and stout were otherwise extinct globally, would those styles have made the triumphant comeback that’s happened over the last ten years? And there’s one other thing. It’s St Patrick’s Day. If you really, truly believe that Guinness is shit, then go to a pub in Galway tonight and tell the people drinking there that they have crap taste in beer and don’t know anything about drinking. Good luck with that. I’ll be in the Auld Shillelagh in Stokie tonight, having a few pints, otherwise I’d come with you and help try to find your teeth on the floor of the pub. Guinness probably holds the world record (ironic that!) for number of books written about a single beer brand. Today there’s a new one out – Guinness ®: An Official Celebration of 250 Remarkable Year, from Octopus publishing. I don’t know if it’s any good or not, but it does have some recipes in it, and the publishers asked me if I’d put one up ande give the book a plug, so I am, because it’s Paddy’s day and I. Like. Guinness. So here’s one for Iced Chocolate, Guinness and orange cake. Slainte! This sumptuous cake is perfect for a special occasion. The recipe may seem a little involved, but it’s easy to accomplish if tackled stage by stage. Preparation time 45 minutes Cooking time 1 hourServes 8 2 large oranges250 g (8 oz) caster sugar175 g (6 oz) unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing150 g (5 oz) self-raising flour25 g (1 oz) cocoa powder2 teaspoons baking powder3 free-range eggs, beaten25 g (1 oz) ground almonds5 tablespoons draught Guinness 150 ml (¼ pint) double cream Icing20 g (¾ oz) unsalted butter50 g (2 oz) caster sugar3 tablespoons draught Guinness 100 g (3½ oz) plain dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids), finely chopped step 1 Peel one orange. Finely grate the zest of the other orange and set aside. Using a sharp knife, pare away the pith from both oranges. Cut the oranges into 5 mm (¼ inch) slices. Put them in a small saucepan and just cover with cold water. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Add 50 g (2 oz) of the sugar and continue to simmer until all the liquid has boiled away, watching carefully to ensure that the oranges don’t burn. Leave to cool.step 2 Beat together the butter and the remaining sugar for the cake in a large bowl until very pale and fluffy. Sift together the flour, cocoa and baking powder, then beat into the butter mixture alternately with the eggs. Add the ground almonds, reserved grated orange zest and Guinness and beat for 3–4 minutes until you have a soft dropping consistency.step 3 Grease and line the base and sides of 2 x 20 cm (8 inch) round cake tins, then divide the cake mixture equally between the tins, smoothing the surface. Bake the cakes in a preheated oven, 190°C (375°F), Gas Mark 5, for 25 minutes until risen and firm to the touch. Leave to cool in the tins for 5 minutes before carefully turning out on to a wire rack to cool completely.step 4 Whip the cream in a bowl until soft peaks form, then spread over one of the cakes. Arrange the cooled orange pieces over the cream and carefully place the other cake on top.step 5 To make the icing, put the butter, sugar and Guinness in a small saucepan. Stir over a gentle heat until the sugar has dissolved, then bring to the boil. Remove from the heat and add the chocolate. Leave to soften, then beat gently with a wooden spoon. Leave to cool and thicken. While still warm but not too runny, pour the icing over the cake and use the back of a spoon or a palette knife to spread it evenly.