AHEAD of the GLASS
A simple pint with a complicated history, 200-year-old Guinness looks to modernize Calum Marsh
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.