Although Guinness is subtitled as “The 250 Year Quest for the Perfect Pint” and often addresses itself to the qualities
of the product that made the company famous, the book really shines as a history of the Guinness company itself and how it grew spectacularly over those two and a half centuries. Starting as a small brewery leased by one Arthur Guinness at St. James’s Gate in Dublin, it eventually grew to become the largest multinational beverage and spirits corporation in the world, Diageo PLC, whose holdings include everything from Captain Morgan’s rum to Beaulieu Vineyard’s wine, from J&B’s blended Scotch to Oban’s single malt. Despite an awkward start and writing that rarely rises above competence, the history remains compelling throughout, owing to the inherent interest of the facts, which have been researched and arranged with evident care and joy. Yenne conveys the story without belaboring the details or probing larger questions too deeply, which is probably for the best.
Readers with an interest in economics, corporate histories, and branding will find much to provoke thought and even wonder in these pages. For instance, it came as a surprise to this reader to learn that Guinness operated as a wholesaler until the second half of the twentieth century: the company would ship the product in bulk to independent bottling companies, who then resold the beer under their own labels to retailers worldwide. This effectively meant that Guinness surrendered control of their brand to middlemen. This was only perceived as a problem in the 1920s, when travelling company inspectors discovered the difficulty of ordering Guinness by name in far-flung markets such as Argentina. In the end, the company was only able to take full control of bottling operations in 1953, when it bought out the last independent bottler.
Of similar fascination is the story behind the brilliant “My Goodness My Guinness!” marketing campaign of the 1930s and 1940s, which was intended to raise consciousness of the brand in foreign markets. The posters designed by John Gilroy, the centerpiece of this campaign, retain their charm and effectiveness to this day. The fascination here lies in the context: it turns out that this campaign was a first for Guinness. Until convinced otherwise by a forward-thinking executive in 1927, the chairman, Edward Cecil Guinness, was resolutely prejudiced against advertising: he felt that a company would only need to advertise if it had an inferior product; a superior product ought to sell itself. In the hyper-competitive globalized economy that we all live in today, such an attitude seems about as quaint as the monocle and spats very possibly worn by Edward Cecil Guinness himself.
There is much more of interest in Guinness: it explains the secrets behind the creamy head and the characteristic flavor of Guinness Draught, explains how the widget works in bottled Draught, gives the story behind the creation of the Guinness Book of World Records, and charts in great detail each step, whether forwards or backwards, that the company took on its way toward market dominance. In sum, Guinness is a light, genial book, perfect for a long flight or a Sunday afternoon.