Taste for Guinness wanes in changing Ireland

How about a glass of wine to celebrate Saint Patrick's Day in Dublin?

That might not sit well on the stomach of many residents of Ireland's capital this Saturday as they mark the year's biggest party with copious quantities of Guinness, the rich, dark beer with a creamy head that is the national drink.

But the cliche of the Irish pub filled with Guinness drinkers is giving way to a different picture as new wealth, new opportunities and immigration transform tastes and drinking habits in one of Europe's fastest growing economies.

Alongside the decline of Guinness is an increasing appetite for wine, spirits, cider and imported beer.

"You'll still sell Guinness, but you'll sell the likes of wheat beers, beers from the Czech Republic, beers from Poland," said Eddy Martin, who runs the Bailey Bar.

"Beer sales are declining while the amount of wine is phenomenal. Before, people would say they wanted a white wine, now they'll say they want a Chardonnay," he said at the bar in the heart of Dublin's smartest shopping district.

Latest figures from global drinks giant Diageo, which owns Guinness, show local sales for the brand down about 7 percent in the six months to the end of December 2006 from a year before. Wine now accounts for over a fifth of alcohol drunk in Ireland.

"The lifestyle shift has meant that Guinness has been impacted to a higher degree," said Grainne Mackin, Diageo's head of corporate communications in Ireland.

"Instead of sticking to one sort of drink, there are now two or three that people might have and that has meant we're in competition with a lot more drinks."

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ACQUIRED TASTE

The scale of the shift from drinking Guinness, which takes its dark colour from the roasted barley, appears even more dramatic given that Ireland has the fastest growing population in the European Union.

"In times gone past, alcohol in this country was an acquired taste. You acquired a taste for porter, or Guinness," said Paul Stevenson, president of the Vintners Association of Ireland, which represents pub landlords.

"Your father would have brought you to the pub and sat you down and taught you how to drink. That doesn't seem to happen now. When people taste something they want something instantly which tastes nice."

But the decline of Guinness is by no means global.

Sales are doing well in North America and parts of West Africa -- where the stronger, bottled local version of Guinness has a reputation, perhaps undeserved, for everything from helping prevent malaria to enhancing male sexual prowess.

But while "Irish pubs" have become a fixture across the globe, many in Ireland have been struggling. Guinness reckons Irish pubs are opening abroad at the rate of about one a day -- the same rate as rural pubs are closing back home.

FAST LANE

That is bad news for Guinness. Most people say it is best straight from the tap, a process that should take at least a couple of minutes to deliver a perfect pint.

"People are cash-rich, but time-poor so there's been a shift away from the amount of times that people are going to the pub," said Mackin.

The trend is towards drinking with food in restaurants as well as in buying wine or beer to drink at home. With a pint (just over half a litre) of Guinness costing over 4 euros ($5.30) in a Dublin pub, it may not look that cheap either.

Pub landlords complain other discouraging factors have been a smoking ban and, in rural areas, tougher restrictions on drinking and driving to cut road deaths -- though many point out that Guinness remains their best seller.

"You might find your ladies drinking wine, but only the odd male -- and then with food," said Keith O'Brien, 25, barman at a pub near Dublin's River Liffey.

"Younger drinkers are more likely to drink lager or cider, more refreshing drinks, especially in the summer, though. They'll turn to shots (of spirits) when they've filled up on the beer and can't get anything more in."

The big challenge for Guinness is to win over the new generation of drinkers beyond the March 17 Saint Patrick's Day festivities, which are already bringing their annual outbreak of shamrocks and leprechauns to Dublin streets.

That means looking for new marketing strategies worldwide from the company behind such slogans as "Guinness for Strength", "Guinness is good for you" and "Pure Genius".

One Guinness Web site shows the kind of thing being tried in the run-up to Saint Patrick's Day. First the shamrock dances to Irish fiddle music, before a modern beat tellingly starts up. ( http://dev01.tmw.co.uk/diageo/guinnesststpats07/intro.html)

"Without a doubt, a lot of our Guinness drinkers are older people," said Mackin. "A lot of our marketing and branding is focused on attracting younger and newer people. The difficulty is that you cannot alienate your older Guinness drinkers too."

Reuters

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