On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” host Zach Geballe is joined by Tim McKirdy, VinePair’s managing editor and host of the “Cocktail College” podcast. The two discuss Guinness’s enduring appeal, how daring advertisements helped to cement its popularity, and what exactly constitutes the perfect pour. Tune in for more.
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Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
Tim McKirdy: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Tim McKirdy.
Z: This is the “VinePair Podcast.” Yes, I know the question on all of your minds. That’s not Adam. It’s not Joanna. It’s “Cocktail College’s” own Tim McKirdy. Tim, thanks for stepping up as a last-second pinch hitter here for Adam. He will hopefully be with us in a few weeks, but things are progressing. He’s taken some time away from the mic, well deserved. We hope to have more information for everyone soon, but things seem fine for the moment. Tim, thanks so much.
T: No, my pleasure. Things are fine on that front, no news yet, but we’re eagerly anticipating it, all the best to them if they’re listening
Z: I hope not really. Please do something else with your time. The rest of you, yes, but Adam and Naomi specifically, no, don’t. Tim, it actually is mildly serendipitous that we have you on this episode, just in that we will be focusing on the — well, I guess not really your homeland, but adjacent kind of for this episode. We’re here to talk about what I, in my perhaps hot take, think is maybe the perfect beer which is Guinness. I think that for a couple of reasons, I think Guinness does a thing that I’m not sure if any other beer in the world does, which is that it is an acceptable beer for literally everyone to drink. I think it is obviously a very large production beer. It’s available worldwide in almost any format you can imagine. Yet it doesn’t catch, I think, really any of the flak that other very large-scale production beers do, but it also doesn’t carry a lot of elitist, snobby overtones that craft beer can sometimes have, that other small-production European beers can have. If someone says they don’t like Guinness, I guess maybe you don’t like stouts or something, but do you get what I’m going for here? It is a beer that seems to have a near 100 percent approval rating.
T: I could not agree with you more. If you were to start a brand, you would want that brand to be Guinness. You would want it to reach the Guinness level. Like you say, beloved by everyone. Those who don’t like it are almost apologetic about it. They’re not like, “Oh my God, you like Guinness? I hate Guinness.” They’re like, “Actually, I don’t like Guinness.” They’re apologetic.
Z: I know something is wrong with me, but I don’t like Guinness.
T: Yes. Also, within the beer conversation, we know that ownership matters to a certain sector of beer drinkers. This is owned by Diageo. That’s obviously public knowledge, I find that sometimes in the spirit space, you might find bartenders who maybe are less inclined to like some of their brands because it’s such a big conglomerate, but again, no one seems to care when it comes to Guinness. Everyone loves it. Then just in terms of a product, as a beer, it’s fabulous.
Z: It’s a great beer. We’re going to taste some in a little bit because I actually was realizing as we were prepping for this episode, I actually haven’t had a Guinness in a while, perfect occasion to hear on St. Patrick’s Day, which obviously all of you listening to this know, but just reminding you, it is a particularly fitting topic and toast for the day. Also, I think you’re right, it’s not just that people don’t hold the current ownership of Guinness against it, but in a lot of ways, I think Diageo has been really savvy in maintaining the spirit of Guinness and finding ways to carry it forward. I would love for you, Tim, to talk a little more about the piece that ran on the site today about the specific history of Guinness advertising because I think a big part of why it has the beloved place and iconic place in drinks culture here in the U.S. and globally is the advertising, which isn’t always true for other products that are heavily advertised.
T: First of all, I just want to say this is a piece that I’ve wanted to see come to life for so long. It’s written by Maggie Hennessy, she’s a fantastic writer, one of my favorite writers to work with. It’s all about the history of one particularly iconic Guinness ad, which is called “Surfer,” it also looks into Guinness just marketing throughout the years. I think this is a large part of the conversation we’re having today. When I was editing this piece, there were some links to specific ads. The “Surfer” one, but there’s another one, I can’t believe that it’s escaping me now. It’s essentially a man racing the pouring of a pint of Guinness, Marco versus Pint. That took me back. Those came out in ’98 and ’99 respectively. The way that that transformed, I’m going to reveal my age here, but that was my childhood, and the way that that transported me, sorry, back to my childhood, was just incredible. The company took some real risks with the “Surfer” ad in particular. For those who are not familiar with it or need reminding, this is set on a beach and there’s a couple of surfers, and it has this very kind of — I don’t know. How would you describe the baseline that pumps as the tension is building? How would you describe that, Zach?
Z: I think you would call it maybe sensual.
T: Visceral maybe, I don’t know.
Z: Yes. That’s better, yes. It’s heartbeat-adjacent kind of.
T: You have then the narrator with this incredible, this thick Scottish accent reading aloud a Moby Dick poem. These guys go out to surf this 50-foot, or some people say 80-foot wave. These things do get exaggerated over time. Then the wave transforms into these white horses, and it’s just — There were two versions of the ad. There was a 60-second one, and then there was one which was 120 seconds, which is half a second longer than it takes to pour the perfect pint of Guinness which is also just incredible. You don’t actually see Guinness or hear it mentioned until the last second, and just to do that, and also as Maggie mentions in the piece, to lean into the fact that it takes longer to pour a Guinness, something that maybe had been — they hadn’t wanted to advertise before because that’s not something you want to boast, that it takes longer to get, but to lean into that, I don’t know, it’s just so iconic.
Z: Yes. You can in some ways draw — obviously, the ads and moving into that television medium is one big piece of, but you can even draw back to the historic ads. I think of them — they often have two cans, right?
Z: With the print ads and stuff like that. They had a sort of cheekiness to them, but also a sort of substantive quality, which is a weird combination of the two. I think that’s one of those things where you just think about how in some ways, it would be very easy for a beer like Guinness to end up siloed in the way that a lot of other Irish beers are or Irish, even not so much whiskies, but cider, et cetera, like, “Oh, yes, we have a huge– mid-March is our big time, and the rest of the time, we just exist on the peripheries, or we’re in the Irish bars and things like that. We’re not really ambient or present in American culture year-round.” Guinness obviously kills it this time of year but manages to be present in all kinds of bars year round that you might not think for something that could, like I said, easily have been relegated to that kind of holiday-adjacent period and/or culturally specific bars and pubs.
T: Yes, it’s fascinating too. I’ve actually got a question for you here because when I was of legal drinking age, but early in my drinking days, we would go to specific pubs based upon how good their Guinness was. I don’t know of any other beer where that’s the case. I think as you get into beer, specifically craft beer, you start thinking about things or you’d maybe know how clean are the tap lines or whatever, but to go to a pub for Guinness, I don’t know, is that also a phenomenon over here? Is that a British thing?
Z: That’s a good question. I will say that without being able to relate to that specifically, maybe because it wasn’t something that I did in particular, but I do think that another thing that to some extent distinguishes Guinness, and you talked about it even in the advertising is that the pour is so essential. Again, now we think about nature of beers and the texture of beer being a little bit more a topic of conversation, certainly in craft in some senses, but Guinness really transformed the idea of what a pour of beer could be or should be, that it could be something that a bartender should spend time on, should think about, and obviously, in a lot of cases, they’ve had to invent or introduce technology, specifically in cans and what not to facilitate that because the truth is that obviously, a lot of Guinness is sold overdraft, but more of it I’m sure goes in cans and bottles. When you spend a lot of time hammering home the importance of the pour and of the setup of the beer, you have to give the person drinking at home an opportunity to at least come close to that without a high degree of technical expertise. Again, I think there’s all these ways in which Guinness has made itself into this — it does something too that we’ve talked about on this podcast a lot, which is it makes itself feel like a luxury product. You have the special pour technology and the can and you are trying to get it to look a certain way. The visual appeal of the pint or of the pour is a big part of it. It still looks good even by today’s hyper — with so much attention being paid on how things look, it still holds up very well. The texture itself, that silky, nitro pour texture is really appealing and not always matched by other beers.
T: Yes, to your point, as well about the long pour, it’s kind of a marketing tool in a way too. If you go to a pub or a bar that’s known for its Guinness or where you’ll find a lot of people drinking Guinness, and you have the people pour it three-quarters of a way and then let it settle, and then start on the next one, if you go to a bar and you see all those — I’m going to drop something here, a proprietary thing, I like to use the plural “Guinnei,” which is a word I’ve coined. When you see those pints lined up, it’s phenomenal. It’s this marketing thing. It’s like a server walks through a restaurant with four Espresso Martinis on a tray and then suddenly that’s all the bartender’s making for the rest of the night.
Z: As I’ve relayed on the podcast before, for me, the drink that always did that to me as a bartender was a Spanish coffee. Anything that you see the bartender laboring over, it has just a Pavlovian response for people that are like, “Ooh, I want that.” Of course, the Spanish coffee has the added element of being on fire, so that’s obviously a big appeal. When you see a bartender rip 30 pints in two minutes, and then all of a sudden, it’s like, “Here’s the one they’re spending two whole minutes on themselves,” again, it just signifies to people, yes, that is a beer that I should treasure. Even if we all know that Guinness is obviously very widely available — thank you, Diageo — but it’s definitely still because of the pour, because of the setup, and because it is a little bit — let’s put it this way. It is distinct in the category of incredibly widely available beers. Obviously, there are other Irish stouts, there are other people here in the U.S. making beers that are somewhere between homages and rip-offs of Guinness, but its ubiquity, the fact that you can find it in airport bars and dive bars and places just all across the spectrum of drinking, it is this very distinctive beer in that setting makes it — it’s obviously iconic — but also in a way that some things that have that iconic status don’t manage to do, I think it really does manage to live up to that image, but the only real way to know this for sure is that we got to drink some Guinness. I have one of the classic 14.9-ounce cans here. What do you have, Tim?
T: I have that. I specifically went for the draft. I do like the Extra Stout, I must say, but I don’t quite enjoy the texture as much without the nitro, it’s just not quite as good.
Z: That’s right. I’ve got a pint glass here. Do you have one too?
T: I do indeed. It actually took me a surprising amount of time to find one here in the VinePair office. You would imagine as a drinks publication, we have more knocking around, but who knows? Maybe we need more pints.
Z: All the glassware is far fancier than just your standard pint glass. All right, why don’t we give this one a pour?
T: All right, here we go.
Z: There’s always a good sound.
T: Are we going to make the listeners wait 119.5 seconds here?
Z: We’ll see. There may be some editing magic involved, but while we’re pouring, we can talk. I want to talk just a little bit broadly about St. Patrick’s Day, Tim, and your feelings about it as a person of, let’s say, non-American extraction. How do you feel about the way it is observed in the United States?
T: In a word, baffling.
Z: Please elaborate. More words.
T: It’s not something that I have ever celebrated. For anyone who’s not aware, I was born in Scotland, grew up in England, but do have Irish ancestry as well, but it was never really a big day. If you happen to be out and it happened to be the weekend, yes, you’d maybe go for a Guinness or whatever, but we wouldn’t make plans around it. You don’t see the fancy dress, SantaCon-esque celebration, and everything that unfolds with that too. I don’t know. To be fair, I’ve never been to Ireland for St. Patrick’s Day, but the fact that it’s so big over here, I don’t know, it feels very American that it would be.
Z: Yes, I think creating a cultural legacy through co-opting an existing one is always a — it’s a thing that happens here for better or for worse sometimes. I think that a thing that is interesting to me about it is — it’s interesting to hear that at least in other parts of the U.K. or whatever, it’s not necessarily the all-out thing that we see it here. I do think there’s an interesting tie in to, I think, the way that in particular, not exclusively, but in particular Irish drinking culture and the Irish pub are such a beloved part of the American drinks landscape, tapestry, I don’t know, whatever poetic language you care to use there because I think that in a way, that’s connected to Guinness in a sense or maybe they’re interdependent on each other for this. They also are one of these spaces that remain acceptable to so many kinds of drinkers. People who might turn their nose up at a dive bar will go to essentially the same thing, but with the Irish skin on it and it becomes a fun outing. I don’t have any problem with that. It’s just an observation. Also, I finished pouring my Guinness.
T: I just finished pouring mine too. No, that’s a great point. If I can ask you another Guinness-related rather than St. Patrick’s Day question-
T: -obviously, we’re both big fans here. Is this a beer that you can go to in any establishment, i.e.. you’re like, “I’m not really sure about… The selection sucks here, but, ooh, they have Guinness,” is this dependable? Is this the Negroni of beers as Negronis would be for a lot of people? Or are you more looking around the surroundings and being like, “The chances of the Guinness being good here and poured properly, no, I’ll probably just go for something else…?”
Z: I think the answer to that is two parts. I think one is a little bit to crib the advice, in my opinion, that one of the best pieces of advice that Anthony Bourdain ever gave out, which was he was talking in “Kitchen Confidential” about — God, I don’t even remember what dish it was, but some weird fish dish. He was talking about if you go into a restaurant and they have this on the menu, should you order it? His advice was basically, well, if you see a bunch of other people eating it, if they’re making it a lot, then sure, they probably know what they’re doing. It’s probably good. If no one in the restaurant is eating the weird fish dish, then probably steer clear. To me, it’s a little bit like, is the Guinness moldering in a fridge and has perhaps been there for — if it’s in a can or bottle and perhaps has been there for months or, yes, it’s on tap, but no one seems to be drinking it because it’s whatever, the people are crushing Bud Light or whatever, then okay, maybe it’s not the place. Are you in a bar where you see — exactly, you see the Guinnei as you coined the term, Tim.
T: Nice use.
Z: Then, yes, I think it’s a great go-to. Let’s put it this way. A poorly poured Guinness is still a perfectly fine beer. I do think that there is a level of enjoyment and experience you can get out of I guess a proper Guinness that is always a little disappointing if the one you get doesn’t meet that standard. I think it depends on — if you’re in a place where they can’t pour you a proper Guinness, are they going to be able to give you something else that’s better? Arguably not.
T: Just get out of there. Just leave.
Z: Or just set your expectations correctly, or drink whiskey neat or something. That’s harder to f*ck up.
T: Yes, that’s true. That’s a good point. What are your thoughts on — actually, before — no, let me ask that question. Sorry. What are your thoughts on — because there is such a thing, the perfect pint of Guinness, but for you, what does that look like in terms of the size of the head?
Z: Well, to me, I’m a believer that a properly poured nitro beer like this should have between a quarter and a half inch of head, maybe up to an inch if you’re really going for it. More than that, and I’m not someone who’s like, “Oh, the foam is where all the flavor is,” I know there are people out there who believe that, and I do think that aromatics in beer get under-discussed and the head is a great place to capture and savor some of those aromas, but that’s more for other kinds of beer. I don’t necessarily think it’s as true for this. To me, the appeal of a Guinness properly poured is that you get a little bit of that slight textural contrast between the beer and the head. What you’re really there to savor is, like I said, that incredibly smooth, velvety textured beer that plays out as also a very almost egg-white texture-ish head, but it doesn’t overwhelm the beer. You definitely don’t want a big two-inch head on Guinness. At least to me, for one, that’s less Guinness for me to drink, which is always a bummer. Also, the ratio doesn’t seem right.
T: If you do want to see some very egregious crimes against Guinness, in Maggie’s piece near the end, she highlights an Instagram account, which is called Sh*t London Guinness. Let me tell you, there’s some wild stuff going on out there and that’s London. Those Londoners should be ashamed of themselves. When it comes to St. Patrick’s Day, sorry, just to bring it back to that, I actually don’t have a problem with the people enjoying it. Like I said, I find it baffling. I don’t really partake myself. There is one thing though that should never happen whether it’s St. Patrick’s Day or not, but in relation to Guinness, the shamrock in the foam that some people like to pour, do not do that. That’s not how they do it in Ireland. Stop doing that, people.
Z: One last Guinness-related question for you, and then we should talk about our taste real quick. A thing I really liked when I was younger and enjoyed, and I still probably would, but just haven’t had in a long time, are your various, let’s say, layered Guinness and other beer or sometimes cider drinks. Sometimes it’s Guinness and a pale ale or something like that. Again, sometimes it’s Guinness and cider. Is that something that you enjoy? Have you tried those?
T: I’ve actually never tried that. Never in my life. I’m wondering if it’s one of those things that sounds like a terrible idea but is actually surprisingly good. Is that the case or is it bad?
Z: I think it is good. It’s how you feel about layered shots and stuff like that. It’s a little gimmicky. I always enjoyed Guinness and cider in particular. There’s some way in which the very faint sweetness and crispness of a good dry cider with Guinness layered over top of, it’s not — I wouldn’t say it’s as good as a Guinness, but if you’re drinking them and you want a little change-up, that’s, I think, a great way to go. I enjoy them for sure. They’re not my go-to with this beer, but I do enjoy them from time to time. I used to drink more of them in part because I think they look cool. It’s fun. It’s very distinctive, and again, the texture and the relative lightness of Guinness allow it to float atop things that you should not think it would float on. Guinness is effervescent or has an ebullient drink, I guess you could call it.
T: Does this thing have a name if I wanted to go and try this at a bar, or do I just explain and they’ll be like, “Yes, sure?”
Z: I will say this. I think that my understanding, and again, I’m not an expert on this, is that if it’s half Guinness and half pale ale or whatever it was, often you’ll hear it called a black and tan, but I think that term is considered not super acceptable. I think it’s often called a half and half. I also think black velvet is something I’ve heard for it when it’s with cider. Again, these were the terms that were used at the Irish bar that I went to in college. I’m not sure they’re industry standard, but maybe they are. Write in, email@example.com. Let us know if this is a thing you’ve tried and/or if you have a name for it that hopefully is also not offensive.
T: Yes, that would be great.
Z: We’ve talked a lot about Guinness, but now we’re drinking it. Any thoughts?
T: Just wonderful, isn’t it? Just wonderful. For me, I don’t necessarily go to Guinness for the flavor. It’s all about the texture for me. I know that’s not a hot take. That’s probably what everyone is doing, but I do like the toasted, almost oatmeal character that it has. I’m really just looking for that body and then the head mixed with the stout itself. It’s wonderful.
Z: It’s delicious. I think it actually sometimes gets a bad rap because its flavor isn’t super intense. I agree with you that the texture is a big selling point for me as well. I appreciate the subtle multi-notes of Guinness. It’s not going to get in your face, but that’s great because again, one of the secrets to Guinness that’s popular, I think it’s 4.2 percent alcohol. You can drink a lot of Guinness. It doesn’t feel weighty and heavy the way that a lot of other stouts certainly do because they’re just made differently. It’s a different kind of beer. That to me is delightful. There’s a place for a beer that gives you great texture, frankly, great visual appeal, nice flavor, and you can have three of them and not feel like you immediately must lie down, and that’s a big win in my book.
T: Yes. They call it a meal in a glass, but I think that’s a bit of a myth because yes, to your point, you can have a couple, but it’s not just one and done. You can have a couple of them, but then, yes, a nice nap. For me, the whiskey equivalent of Guinness, and this is very apt, would be single pot still Irish whiskey, which is something I really, really love and it’s probably because of my love of Guinness that I really appreciate that, but that’s another great one for today.
Z: Exactly. Guinness is also a great companion to a shot of whiskey because of its smoothness and velvetiness. It makes for a great — if you’re moving back and forth between a slightly punchier, more complex, interesting Irish whiskey or something like that, moving back to Guinness to reset the palate, giving you something else to taste is great. I just regret I didn’t pour myself whiskey too.
T: Yes, I know. I’m like I got a bottle of Redbreast 27 in the room next door. I should have planned better here.
Z: Well, on that note, Tim, I’ll let you escape. Thank you so much for stepping in. You’ll be back with us for the next couple of episodes at a minimum while things progress with Adam and Naomi, and their hopeful new addition to the family. Thank you so much for jumping in and I’ll talk to you on Monday.
T: Pleasure is all mine, Zach. Thank you very much.
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