Dark times trying to crack the market

Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters
Tom Brooking reviews Guinness Down Under, by Rod Smith. Published by Eyeglass Press.

Anyone who enjoys a glass of Guinness will find plenty of interest in this handsomely produced, heavily illustrated, thoroughly researched and well written book. Rod Smith, who married into the Guinness clan, spent eight years researching this impressive tome that provides a comprehensive account of both the fortunes of the brew in Australia and New Zealand and the family’s links to this part of the world.

Smith’s background as a genealogist enables him to tell with great skill the story  of how the Guinness clan became a brewing dynasty. He also reveals plenty about the Burke family they married into that went on to became a global power in the associated craft of bottling. This story has been well told elsewhere, however, so most New Zealand readers are likely to be more interested in the fortunes of the two families in New Zealand.

Michael John Burke, after whom Burke’s pass near Fairlie is named, arrived in New Zealand in 1850. This Trinity College-trained barrister had some success as a runholder in South Canterbury and North Otago, but died young at 47 in 1869. Arthur Robert Guinness had a rather greater impact on New Zealand history. Born in India, he came to New Zealand in 1852 as a small child. After training as a lawyer, he went on to become the long-serving West Coast representative for the Grey electorate (1884-87 and 1891-1913). He became Chairman of Committees in 1893 and  Speaker in 1903.

There is much more on other members of the Burke and Guinness families in Australasia, but their story seems little different from that of many other colonists who worked away quietly and undertook  community-service roles without any kind of fanfare. The general reader will find the story of the struggles of one of the world’s most iconic beers down under more interesting.

Guinness had low sales in 19th-century New Zealand because there were plenty of heavier stouts made by brewers from different parts of Britain. Things were more difficult in hotter Australia, where breweries from the 1850s decided to concentrate on lighter lager styles designed to quench a thirst. Warm beer and froth simply did not appeal to the average Aussie drinker. As the big New Zealand monopolies — Dominion and New Zealand Breweries — bought out smaller local operations from the 1920s they also concentrated on lighter styles. By the 1960s, after Guinness expanded its sales in the United States, the company tried to expand its share of the Australasian and South African markets by brewing offshore.

Production started in 1964 in both countries, but neither the small Tui plant at Mangatainoka plant in the southern Hawke’s Bay nor the South Australian Brewery in Adelaide had much success. The smaller bottle also did not appeal and there were problems in keeping the beer frothy when chilled. Later, a special ‘‘widget’’ device enabled the beer to be sold in cans. But such innovation did not help sales. Lion Nathan took over in 1990, and moved operations to Christchurch to take advantage of the appearance of popular Irish pubs and renewed interest in St Patrick’s Day. The resulting increase in demand failed to satisfy either Lion, or Guinness’ new parent company Diageo, and operations ceased after the Christchurch earthquakes of 2011. Lion has since promised to commence operations at a new specialty brewery in Auckland.

This story highlights the difficulty of promoting a beer developed in a particular environment by a distinctive culture in a very different place. The struggle with the Australasian market also explains the rise of microbreweries using locally-sourced ingredients and brewers experimenting with new styles and flavours. Big, industrial production methods can guarantee consistency, but lack the excitement of small boutiques. Guinness’ future seems safe enough but such large global operations are unlikely to expand as consumers turn away from industrial methods in search of drink that is tastier and brings benefit to the local rather than the global economy. This intriguing cautionary tale comes highly recommended.

- Tom Brooking is a professor of history at the University of Otago

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