First, there was food and wine matching. Then ale got in on the act. Now, apparently, it's stout. I'm sitting in a restaurant at the top of the Storehouse, Guinness's visitor centre in Dublin, listening to the chef Justin "Joc" O'Connor talk about the fine taste of Guinness-cured salmon. It's not an obvious choice of marinade. The accompanying glass of Guinness Extra Stout isn't typical either.
They work, though, as do other dishes such as mussels in Extra Stout, dill and cream sauce, Foreign Extra Stout beef stew and, most convincingly, Guinness and beetroot chocolate brownies. "Guinness draught is more suited for desserts – the coffee taste and slight bitterness of the beer offsets the sweetness," says Joc, the Guinness Storehouse executive chef, explaining the nuances of matching the company's stout variants with food.
It makes a change to experience some subtlety in relation to the "black stuff", as it's not something I'd usually associate with its consumption. At one humiliating freshers' week event many years ago, I crashed drunkenly, mid-Irish jig, into the hired band's drum kit, destroying a drum, the gig and any chance of making new friends.
I keep this to myself when I meet Fergal Murray, the Guinness master brewer and brand ambassador. He suggests I swill the beer around my mouth before swallowing, as you would with wine, and though it feels slightly pretentious, I admit that a previously unnoticed complexity of flavours does excite my taste buds.
He teaches me to pull the perfect pint – it's a six-stage process, including leaving the glass to sit partially filled for 120 seconds to allow the "surge" to settle before topping up the remainder. Two weeks previously, he'd taught Tom Cruise the same – and he's even pulled a pint for the Queen. "That was the pressure one but I nailed it," says Murray. "It's the only pint I've poured for which I've received a standing ovation."
It's not just celebrities and dignitaries that are drawn to the St James's Gate Brewery site in Dublin. About a million visitors flock here every year, keen to experience… well, what exactly?
There aren't many brands as synonymous with national culture and identity as Guinness is. It's not just a creamy-topped pint of dark beer; it's, as my Dublin taxi driver described it, "a national monument," a company and drink that seem to encapsulate the essence of Irishness.
For those who don't make it to Dublin, there are thousands of bars all over the world serving pints of Guinness with U2 blaring out in the background, where one can experience Irish culture – or at least a version of it.
Advertising has played its part in the brand's popularity. From John Gilroy's colourful cartoon zoo animal campaigns (1930s-1960s) to the arresting television ad featuring white horses bursting out of a huge wave behind a surfer (1999), to its current "Made of More" campaign, the company has always promoted its products distinctively. So much so that globally, it now sells 10 million glasses of beer a day.
But its association with Irish culture goes deeper, and is inexorably linked to the role the company has played in Dublin's history. The story began in 1759, when 34-year-old Arthur Guinness signed a lease for a dilapidated brewery on a four-acre site at St James's Gate. He got it operating again and started brewing ale, the tipple of choice at the time. By the 1770s a new drink from London, strong black beer called porter, was becoming popular, so Arthur went into production himself. It went down so well that in 1799 he stopped brewing ale and focused solely on porter.
It was an inspired decision and by 1833, under the management of Arthur's son, Arthur Guinness II, the brewery had become the largest in Ireland, exporting porter around the world. It wasn't all about profit, though. Working for Guinness became one of the best jobs available: it paid workers a good wage, funded a pension scheme and gave widows of its staff first preference for jobs within the brewery. "Every woman wanted to marry a Guinness man because they were useful to them dead or alive," the joke went.
The company's influence rippled throughout the city: just before the First World War, Guinness employed some 5,000 people; by 1930, one in 30 Dubliners was dependent on it for their livelihoods, either directly or through its supply chain. It also contributed to civic life. Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness, son of Arthur Guinness II, who took over the brewery on the death of his father in the 1850s, donated £150,000 towards the restoration of Dublin's St. Patrick's Cathedral.
In the 1890s, Benjamin's son, Edward Cecil, set up the Guinness and Iveagh Trusts to provide homes for the poor and gave money to Trinity College Dublin and Dublin hospitals. His brother Arthur landscaped St Stephen's Green in the city and donated it to the public.
Guinness isn't resting on its laurels. It's always had a reputation for innovation: it's still the only brewer to have its own barley roasting plant – this gives the beer its distinctive dark ruby colour; in 1959, it invented a nitrogen/CO2 gas mix, which it put into draught Guinness to give the head it's creamy texture; in 1988, it invented the widget, which forms the nitrogen head when the beer is poured from cans.
So it's not stopping now. Diageo, which owns the company – there are no Guinness descendants on the board these days – is carrying out a €153m (£129m) redevelopment to improve efficiency and environmental performance. Once it's completed the work by June this year, the company says it will save an Olympic swimming pool's-worth of water every 30 hours and enough energy annually to power 1,200 households.
It will also produce 45 million pints a week, Now although the food matching/ingredient trend opens up some intriguing culinary possibilities (some better than others – the Guinness caramel chocolate bar is, let's say, an acquired taste), I think I'd rather stay old-school and drink mine in a pub out of a glass.
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