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Nine ways of looking at a pint of Guinness
The making of a beautiful pint. Words by Ana Kinsella; Illustration by Sinjin Li.
Good morning and welcome to Vittles Season 6: Food and the Arts.
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One of my favourite tweets ever made about Twitter itself was by the writer Tristan Cross back in the depths of 2020 and consisted of the word ‘spoons’ and a single image, a near-infinite scroll of expanding brain meme that contained almost every take possible on whether going to a Wetherspoons was morally acceptable: from yes (cheap) to no (Brexit) to yes (critical support to workers) to no (down with vulture capitalism) to death. It was a distillation of the online left’s ability to turn something as simple as ‘going to the pub’ into an ethical dilemma on the scale of the Trolley Problem, where a series of moral positions are taken up not because they are sincerely held, but as a matter of brinkmanship.
I was reminded of this image recently when Guinness discourse started floating around, all started by a tweet which questioned whether those who have aesthetic opinions on Guinness have been brainwormed by ‘commodity fetishism’; that these opinions were nothing more than brand specifications and marketing, parroted by drinkers who have succumbed to decades of successful advertising. It would have been easy to create a second brain-expanding image from the debate this generated about whether it’s ever ok to have aesthetic preferences about your pint, from no (it’s anti-worker) to yes (the proletariat deserve the treat of a properly poured head) to no (there’s no difference anyway) to yes (things were better when Guinness used to inspect the pubs who served their pints and now the world’s gone to pot) to no (this is a pro-cop position and you are arguing for the continued existence of the Guinness Stasi) to death.
Fwiw, I take the position laid out in today’s newsletter by Ana Kinsella which can loosely be called the ‘all happy pints are alike’ argument, but what interests me far more is the conundrum of why a drink as industrially produced as Guinness can inspire debates on connoisseurship and ritual only usually seen in the appreciation of priceless Japanese tea bowls. The reason for that, as Ana argues, is some of the finest advertising ever produced, both in print and on video, that has made the two-tone Rothko of a filled Guinness glass an icon that every pint must live up to, as well a hackneyed symbol of Irishness abroad. Guinness’s brand value is so powerful that no matter what your take (and this newsletter has at least nine) it’s perhaps impossible to write about Guinness without unintentionally taking on the tenor of an advert. The last time I read Ana’s essay from start to finish, I realised I was feeling unsettled, and only solved it when I left the library, walked over to the pub, and waited – 119.5 seconds more or less – for my pint to look beautiful. JN
Nine ways of looking at a pint of Guinness, by Ana Kinsella
What makes a good pint of Guinness? Ask this question next time you get a round with a group. One of them will say it’s necessary that the lines between keg and tap are clean, which happens naturally when the bar serves a lot of the stuff. Another might add that it needs to be cold, someone else that it should be room temperature at best. One person, the contrarian of the group, will maintain that there is no difference between one pub’s Guinness and the next – it’s all psychosomatic, a trick of the marketing light.
My favourite place to drink Guinness outside of Ireland is The Sheephaven Bay in London, a friendly and genuine Irish pub just behind Camden High Street. The deal, here or elsewhere, is that I order a pint of Guinness and the barman or woman selects the familiar pint glass – one with a wider top and walls that curve inwards gently on the way down – which is suited to the drink. It will be a branded glass: ‘Guinness’ written on the side in the brand’s typical font, the wire-strung harp embossed above it.
The bartender, holding the glass at a 45-degree angle, will begin to fill it, stopping when it is three-quarters full. They will set it down on the bar and go about their business, taking an order from someone else or charging me for the pint I’m waiting on. In pubs in Dublin, if it’s not busy they might tell me to have a seat and the’ll bring it over. If I’m in London, though, I’ll wait at the bar and hope they don’t forget about me. (This happened to me in The French House while writing this article. I was left in pint purgatory for so long that I assumed the barman was doing a bit.)
We’ll wait, the bartender and I, for around a minute and a half. Then they’ll pick up the glass and fill it to the top. The resulting pint is handed to me, with its rich, black body with creamy pale head. For a minute or two the liquid inside the glass will seem to pulsate, amber and honey tones rippling amid the darkness. Then it’ll come to rest. The brand calls this process the ‘surge and settle’, and in advertising campaigns it’s used to signify the anticipation that comes before having your first sip. The marketing works on me: when my friends and I are drinking Guinness, we will pause to watch its movements before we begin. ‘Beautiful,’ we might whisper.
A beautiful pint of Guinness is an image as steady and unwavering as the golden arches of McDonald’s. The image doesn’t change. It’s a pint glass filled seven-eighths with the colour black, the last eighth topped with a creamy head. For many people, even without the word Guinness adorning it, the drink would be instantly recognisable in a way no other alcoholic beverage is.
This image is sticky. Its steadiness helps it to stay in the mind. Sticky images are powerful. They create expectation. If I order a pint of Guinness and what is served doesn’t look how I imagine it will, I know that something has gone wrong. But when it is correct, beautiful even, it is reinforcing an unspoken set of guidelines set down by people on barstools across Ireland and beyond, combined with over a century of vivid, distinctive branding and advertising. Together, this process and its results are capable of turning every conscientious Guinness drinker into a guardian of the brand.
Guinness is often the first choice for me and many others, in large part because it’s memorable: creating difference is the first step to creating preference. In a market crowded with various stout options — Beamish, Murphy’s, for example — some of which could be deemed to taste better, memorability becomes a unique selling point, chiefly illustrated through marketing.
Guinness’s close relationship with advertising began in the late 1920s, with illustrated ads often featuring pint-thieving animals, accompanied by slogans like ‘Guinness is good for you’ written in distinctive red text. This slogan reportedly arose from the brewery’s ad agency, who asked doctors for their opinion on the then-popular drinker’s belief that stout was in fact a healthy choice. The doctors of 1920s Britain confirmed this, apparently, and so the tagline was put to work in those memorable vintage ads that now decorate countless pubs across the UK and Ireland.
There’s a moment in the series premiere of Mad Men which is memorable for its demonstration of how brands use difference to their advantage. Don Draper and Sterling Cooper have a problem: their client Lucky Strike is no longer legally able to advertise its cigarettes on the grounds that they’re healthier. Don saves the day, obviously, coming up with a pivot that makes the most of the dead-end. He asks the tobacco executives how they make their cigarettes, trying to find a detail that will create a point of difference from other similar tobacco brands. As they recite the production steps, Don pulls out one stage and writes it down: It’s toasted.
Lee Garner Jr: But everybody else’s tobacco is toasted.
Don: No. Everybody else’s tobacco is poisonous. Lucky Strike’s is toasted.
Before the 1960s, Guinness was cask-conditioned, meaning it was necessary to pour the pint in two parts, allowing the first part to settle before it was topped up with the remaining liquid. But even after Guinness added a mixture of nitrogen and carbon dioxide to its stout and the need for it had passed, the ritual of the two-part pour hung around. Why? Because regardless of whether or not the stout needs to be poured in two parts, those extra minutes build anticipation.
Yet there was a fear at Guinness that this extra wait time might be a barrier for younger customers, so when the company was in search of a new ad agency in 1996, the brief it sent to pitching firms included one key guideline: Don’t mention the extended pour time. One agency, however, decided to ignore that rule, instead turning the potential barrier into an advantage. ‘Show any creative a “no entry” sign, and they’ll try to unpick that lock,’ creative director (and teetotaller) Walter Campbell explained to Campaign in 2021. Campbell had noticed his own friends savouring the wait time when they ordered a Guinness, enjoying the prospect of the pint they were about to drink. He saw it as a blessing rather than an obstacle. And so, ‘Good things come to those who wait’ was conjured up; the tagline went on to win Campbell’s agency, AMV BBDO, the Guinness account. These seven words took something that could be considered negative about ordering a pint of Guinness and turned it into a unique positive.
There’s a 1999 ad by AMV BBDO – often cited as one of the greatest ads of all time – which is typical of Guinness’s approach to advertising. Directed by Jonathan Glazer, ‘Surfer’ is a 60-second black-and-white film in which surfers ride a huge wave (which occasionally morphs into a row of white horses). It’s a nice ad, but it’s never really done it for me. My favourite, ‘Dreamer’, came two years later. It opens with a drunk falling asleep in a bar, next to a guy who looks exactly like John Berryman. Someone places a Guinness beside the drunk, and everyone turns into squirrels. When the drunk wakes up, he’s on a street, and he joins a crowd of men rushing to climb a high wall. The men are jubilant. They are trying to see through a small hole in the wall, clambering over one another in order to do so. The drunk tears off his shirt as he climbs; on the street, dogs leap around. When he reaches the top and puts his eye to the hole, the drunk is back in the pub, pounding the table and laughing. Outside, eerily, a crowd of silent onlookers wait.
Both ads contain a dreamy weirdness, a kind of boozy poetry. Their success is not a question of how many pints they sell; rather, they are a statement of brand sentiment for Guinness. If ‘Dreamer’ helps create an indelible image of Guinness and its uniqueness within the mind of the drinker, then it can be read as a victory for the marketing department.
The conundrum is that the more popular Guinness becomes, and the further it travels, the more likely it is that its image will be subject to mistreatment. Pity the drinkers confronted with pints served in the wrong glass, or the right glass topped with thin and bubbly heads, or thick, wedge-like heads, or no head at all. The images on Shit London Guinness, a viral Instagram account, compile the worst pints of Guinness served to drinkers – particularly Irish drinkers, who are forced to seek out their favourite pints in London and further afield. All look abhorrent to me, something like the booze world’s version of the uncanny valley of almost-humanity. They’re Wario Guinnesses, laughing at me wickedly from my phone’s screen.
Shit London Guinness has its inverse in Beautiful Pints, an account which collects images of pints served as they should be. (Both are run by Ian Ryan, originally from Cork and now living in London.) A creamy head of the right depth. A hint of amber in the black. The proper glass. Across the grid, the pints are almost identical (‘All happy families are alike’ – Anna Karenina), and it’s important to note that they’re defined as beautiful. This is also the word – not ‘good’; not ‘correct’; not ‘standard’ – that brand sources suggest is what Guinness favours when describing its pints. And there’s a way to make a pint look beautiful. The consistency of marketing imagery from Guinness itself suggests the existence of brand guidelines around the right glass, the so-called perfect pour, the need to be photographed in the most appealing light. The liquid, rich and dark inside the glass, waiting to be lifted to a thirsty mouth. Combined, this creates an image so strong and enduring that the merest sight of it might make your mouth water.
The popularity of these two accounts parallels the spike in sales of Guinness in the years since 2020. According to figures released by Diageo, Guinness’s parent company, one in ten pints sold in London in the months after lockdown was a pint of Guinness. Its popularity in pubs suggests that what drinkers missed while they were shuttered was not the taste of Guinness (which could be roughly attained from the bottled or canned version sold in off-licences up and down the country) but the experience of draught Guinness – how it tastes as well as how it looks – served by someone who knows how to pull a pint. When pubs began reopening after lockdowns in 2021, Guinness launched the ‘Welcome Back’ campaign, channelling the drinker’s longing for a pint when the pubs were closed. In the ad, a white cat lounges on a black compost bin; suds foam on top of a washer full of laundry – and all begins to look like a pint of Guinness. The image of the pint is so compelling that even the faintest visual whisper of it can evoke the taste of what’s in the glass.
One day last autumn, I asked the question ‘What makes a good pint of Guinness?’ at the bar in Terminal 1 of Dublin Airport. The bar serves a particularly beautiful version – not surprising, given it is heavily branded with Guinness signage (the modern stuff, harps and so on, not the kitsch vintage ads). I ask the barman how many pints he pours in a day and he scrunches up his face in concentration.
I’m about to say that the Guinness here is very good when a young guy down the bar leans in and gets there ahead of me.
It’s a mighty pint of Guinness you do here.
So I ask him what makes it mighty. Suddenly, we are strangers talking at a bar together.
If I answered that I’d be talking shite
I tell him to go on, anyway.
Well, it’s the creaminess, and also the quality of the beer.
I suggest it’s maybe because the lines are clear, since they serve a lot of pints. This earns me a nod from the barman. The young lad suggests it’s because the kegs are close to the taps. Here, the Guinness doesn’t need to travel.
Is it really possible that there is that much variation between one pub’s pint of Guinness and the next? Is the notion that Guinness can’t travel real, or am I simply homesick for the country I come from? To be an Irish woman abroad who sometimes drinks Guinness is to assume an ambassadorial role for many people. I am presumed to have some expertise or authority on the subject of how and where to drink Guinness. As the musician and podcaster Blindboy illustrates in a podcast episode titled ‘Appointive Plane’, drinking and debating the pint of Guinness is a way to signal Irishness in the twenty-first century, wherever in the world you might find yourself. It’s more than a drink, he says. It’s a complex metaphor for the history of the Irish diaspora. Even the myth of Guinness ‘not travelling well’, he points out, is an analogy for our own homesickness and distance; ordering a pint, waiting for it to settle, finally taking a sip – all are similar to the act of emigrating and settling abroad.
For Irish people who leave Ireland, the aim is to find the pub that serves the Guinness that is most like the Guinness of home. Today much of the talk about the quality of a pint of Guinness comes down to the idea of the ‘perfect pour’ and its visual representation online. But for many Irish Guinness drinkers, it goes far beyond the pour: the question of the perfect pint takes in a complicated national history of colonialism and emigration. While Guinness could have been seen as a symbol of Anglo-Irish supremacy and a bulwark of unionism – of which its founder Arthur Guinness was a vocal supporter – instead it evolved into a symbol of Irish cultural identity on the world stage. Much of that is down to the brewery’s role in Dublin itself, where it has served as a major employer in the heart of the city for centuries. Even today, when the wind changes in Dublin, you can smell brewing on the breeze. Geographically and sociologically, it’s part of the capital’s id, and thus part of the country’s, too. For Irish people around the world in 2023, going in search of Guinness is often about the hunt for terroir, built into the act of drinking the pint itself. Or maybe it’s the ads that are the terroir – the look of the pint the one truest mark of quality.
Here are some things I think Guinness is: It’s my very first pint on holiday with friends in county Kerry; a group of us around a table, the Atlantic Ocean behind us. It’s Slattery’s pub in Rathmines, the old traditional interior with its corridor of mirrors and its ‘cosy corner’ snug. It’s watching a rugby match or a football match or a soccer match, or watching no match at all, but talking about one. It’s Christmas, just like in the ads – white snow falling over the black night. It’s old friends. It’s after the wedding ceremony, before the reception, when you’ve ducked into a quiet pub on the way through town. It’s homecoming, often.
In Dublin, during the second summer of lockdown, I sat outside Kehoe’s on South Anne Street and watched a man march up to the door, where the barman was waiting. The man pushed a tiny baby in a pram and was accompanied by an older woman.
‘I’ve come 9,000 miles from Australia to bring my mother and my daughter here for a pint of Guinness,’ the man announced.
‘Did you walk?’ the barman replied, deadpan, and opened the door for them. I knew how the returning emigrant felt. It’s home when you’re not home, and it’s the knowledge of home’s intricacies once you are back.
For my part, I enjoy Guinness most when I’m happy, sharing it with people I love who are happy too. The rest is pub chat, the ramblings of the drinker who has spent too long at the bar.
Sinjin Li is the moniker of Sing Yun Lee, an illustrator and graphic designer based in Essex. Sing uses the character of Sinjin Li to explore ideas found in science fiction, fantasy and folklore. They like to incorporate elements of this thinking in their commissioned work, creating illustrations and designs for subject matter including cultural heritage and belief, food and poetry among many other themes. Previous clients include Vittles, Hachette UK, Welbeck Publishing, Good Beer Hunting and the London Science Fiction Research Community. They can be found at www.sinjinli.com and on Instagram at @sinjin_li
Vittles is edited by Jonathan Nunn, Rebecca May Johnson, and Sharanya Deepak, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead.