Guinness sales drop for first time in 241 years

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It is the most slickly advertised stout in the land but the pure geniuses behind Guinness have hit a technical hitch - publicans and drinkers are losing their taste for black nectar.

It is the most slickly advertised stout in the land but the pure geniuses behind Guinness have hit a technical hitch - publicans and drinkers are losing their taste for black nectar.

The annual results of Diageo, the global drinks giant which owns the Guinness brand, are expected to show next month a drop of between 3-4 per cent in sales of the beer in the country of its birth, the Irish Republic. The fall will be the first in the 241 years since Arthur Guinness took a 9,000-year lease on a brewery in Dublin and started producing the eponymous dark beer with the creamy head.

It coincides with a survey of landlords in Britain published yesterday which registered a 6 per cent drop in the number who rated Guinness as one of the products they want to stock.

The decline is in stark contrast to the image Guinness has spent millions cultivating, with award-winning adverts and the sponsorship of events from art exhibitions to the Rugby World Cup. Its breathtaking TV advert featuring surfers doing battle with 60ft waves and the thundering hooves of computer-generated stallions to a reading from Moby Dick was voted the best of all time this May.

But experts believe the brewer is having to spend £200m on marketing as it fights against a fundamental change in drinking behaviour among pubgoers in both Britain and Ireland. Lorna Harrison, editor of the trade magazine Publican, said: "There has been an explosion in the choice of beers available to drinkers, particularly with premium lagers and pre-prepared cocktails. This is accompanied by the fact that women are the growth area and they don't want to drink something like stout. It all adds up to a hard time for Guinness."

More than 1,000 landlords were asked by the magazine which three beers they would most want to stock. Last year 30 per cent named Guinness one of the brands but this year it has fallen to 24 per cent.

Diageo, formed in 1997 by the merger of Guinness and Grand Metropolitan, refuses to release total sales figures for its individual brands but confirmed trading conditions in Ireland were difficult. The twin effects of the booming economy, where inflation is at its highest for 15 years and the lure of trendier drinks have put jobs at risk and a considerable dent in Guinness sales. Plans to cut 300 jobs at a packaging plant at Dundalk were postponed last week to allow talks with unionsbut redundancies there are thought to be inevitable.

The slide in sales has provoked a flurry of innovations on both sides of the Irish Sea, including Guinness Extra Cold, served two degrees cooler than normal. Jean Doyle, a spokeswoman for the company in Dublin, said: "We will continue innovating in order to maintain our market share in what is a changing environment. Guinness remains the most popular brand in the country."

In the UK, Guinness is also proving as popular as ever by increasing its overall market share from 5 per cent in 1998 to 5.5 per cent this year. A spokesman said: "Guinness remains one of the strongest brands in this country."

But beer purists believe the long-term future of the drink could be less certain.

Iain Loe, research director for Camra, the Campaign for Real Ale, said: "Most people increasingly favour bland and sweet mass-produced beers while ale lovers prefer a real bitter to a stout. Guinness is stuck between a rock and a hard place as a result. It just goes to show that however good the advertising, it is the drink itself that decides success."