AHEAD of the GLASS

A sim­ple pint with a com­pli­cated his­tory, 200-year-old Guin­ness looks to mod­ern­ize Calum Marsh

National Post (National Edition) - - THE TRIP -

Grey­stones has proper Guin­ness glasses. This has been a mat­ter of con­tention.

I had reached the end of a sea­side cliff walk from Bray to this re­sort town in County Wick­low, and taken a seat at the bar at the Burn­aby pub. I’d or­dered a Guin­ness, but ex­pected what three days in Ire­land had taught me to ap­pre­ci­ate as a lam­en­ta­ble com­pro­mise — not the im­mac­u­late inky stout of cen­turies-old na­tional tra­di­tion, but a pint un­der­mined in­ex­cus­ably by its own ves­sel, a con­toured nov­elty dubbed by Guin­ness mar­keters as the Grav­ity Glass. No se­ri­ous Guin­ness drinker, lo­cals im­pressed upon me, would con­sent to de­file their cher­ished bev­er­age with this mod­ern glass­ware dis­grace. A true pint of Guin­ness must be served in the clas­sic tulip glass. That the Burn­aby has the proper glasses is a mir­a­cle. “We have to,” the owner ex­plains. “Peo­ple here won’t have it any other way.”

The tra­di­tional glass is the one you will pic­ture when you think of a pint of Guin­ness. It looks broad and squat be­side an­other pint glass, and has the smooth, uni­form out­line of a sil­hou­ette. The mod­ern glass looks mod­ern. That is to say, it has the wellde­fined, Ro­coco pro­file of an ar­ti­sanal show­piece, like a sculp­ture chis­eled from a block of ice. A bar­tender at the 18th-cen­tury Long Hall pub in Dublin ad­vised me soberly that a pint there would taste bet­ter than a pint poured a few blocks away at the world-fa­mous Guin­ness Store­house, be­cause the Guin­ness Store­house was by cor­po­rate man­date bound to use the lat­est drinkware. Whereas the Long Hall, like any au­then­tic Ir­ish pub, was by cus­tom and re­spect for her­itage bound to snub the lat­est drinkware in sol­i­dar­ity with the coun­try’s hard­line Guin­ness con­ser­va­tives.

That glass makes all the dif­fer­ence.

Or per­haps not. At the Guin­ness Store­house I men­tion to my tour guide, Tim, what the bar­tender at the Long Hall had cau­tioned me, and Tim looses the weary sigh of a man ex­hausted by the com­plaint. Yes, he con­cedes, the Grav­ity Glass rep­re­sents a break with the tra­di­tion of the tulip, which many Guin­ness ad­her­ents have elected to re­gard as an un­for­giv­able breach of com­pany deco­rum. But no, he in­sists, the change in glass de­sign has no ap­pre­cia­ble ef­fect on the qual­ity of the bev­er­age what­so­ever — the only con­se­quence that could be said to be reg­is­tered be­ing the in­ner agony of the nostal­gic. Ire­land’s time­honoured ale­houses and other in­sti­tu­tions of a slav­ish de­vo­tion to his­tory will of course re­sist any change they fear threat­ens the sanc­tity of their Guin­ness. Even cos­metic changes that, as Tim demon­strates well in the Store­house’s pri­vate tap­room, make no dif­fer­ence at all.

Guin­ness did not change the de­sign of its sig­na­ture glass in or­der to alien­ate its most de­vout clien­tele. In­deed, Guin­ness cus­tomers ex­hibit a ded­i­ca­tion to the brand that in the world of mar­ket­ing is ex­traor­di­nar­ily un­com­mon, and it re­mains car­di­nal among the com­pany’s pri­or­i­ties to re­tain those cus­tomers for life. But at the same time, it is clear to man­age­ment that Guin­ness has an im­age prob­lem, in the United King­dom es­pe­cially: Guin­ness is per­ceived as an old man’s drink.

The same old men, in fact, whose fer­vent ob­jec­tions to changes in glass­ware con­serve the im­pres­sion in the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion of Guin­ness as un­fash­ion­able or quaint. You see the bind. The Grav­ity Glass is mod­ern be­cause Guin­ness ex­pressly wants to seem mod­ern. But how do you at­tract younger drinkers with­out of­fend­ing the old ones? Maybe more to the point, how do you make a 200-year-old beer seem plau­si­bly sexy and new?

There, be­hind that im­mor­tal dark pint with its half-inch of foam like frost­ing, lies an en­vi­able breadth of iconog­ra­phy — a great ex­pan­sive trove of cul­tural caché and as­so­ci­a­tions that for any brand would be in­valu­able. The fruits of that im­mor­tal­ity can­not be en­joyed con­cur­rently with ef­forts to re­ju­ve­nate pub­lic per­cep­tion. On the other hand, Guin­ness is no stranger to the kind of mis­con­cep­tions that cause young drinkers to iden­tify the beer as an old man’s bev­er­age or old men to re­ject the new glass as too young.

The funny thing about Guin­ness is that mis­con­cep­tions are in its very DNA. Like Ire­land it­self, about which peo­ple tend to as­sume a lot more than they know, Guin­ness is strangely sus­cep­ti­ble to mis­takes and mis­be­liefs. I had more as­sump­tions cor­rected dur­ing my time at the Store­house than I be­lieved I even held.

For in­stance. A per­fect pint of Guin­ness is said to be poured in six dis­crete steps. Pour with the glass at a 45-de­gree an­gle. Fill to the harp. Al­low it to set­tle a minute. Fill to the top. Al­low it to set­tle again. You can learn to do this at the Store­house; they’ll even ac­cord you a diploma cer­ti­fy­ing your ex­per­tise. As it hap­pens, though, it’s fak­ery; there’s no real rea­son to pour the pint in just this way be­sides tra­di­tion. (The tra­di­tion is main­tained prin­ci­pally be­cause if it isn’t, the diehard Guin­ness drinkers will be an­noyed.) Then there is the rev­e­la­tion that would re­ally as­ton­ish: Guin­ness isn’t ac­tu­ally black. It’s very dark red. But is Guin­ness com­pelled to dis­pel these myths? No.

In­stead, wisely, they cul­ti­vate them for mys­tique. They har­ness the con­tra­dic­tions. Be­cause as with any mat­ter of per­cep­tion and tra­di­tion, you have to let the peo­ple have their way.

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