Cold comfort for Guinness drinkers

The campaign against cold Guinness is hotting up

The campaign against cold Guinness is hotting up. Since I broached the subject in a recent column, I have received - quite literally - letters from people who feel the same way, and there have been verbal messages of support as well.

There's talk about us fielding candidates in the next general election. And one supporter has even suggested a tribunal, to establish who took which decisions in the process that led to a situation where stout is being sold at temperatures as low as 3 Celsius. The scandal will be known as "St James's-Gate", needless to say.

But this is a clearly a subject about which people care deeply. Typical of the general reaction was the comment of George, from Blackrock, Co Dublin, who wrote:

"I feel we have been manipulated for many years over beer temperature, and put it down to foreign tourists, particularly Americans. . .It may be alright for continental countries and parts of the US, but we should not accept this fad in a country which last night was 1.5 outdoors at nine o'clock."


Well, yes, George, we can be sure those damned Americans are mixed up in it somewhere or other. But on the other hand, we mustn't be too judgmental. My friend Harry, who's from New Jersey, has been involved in this campaign from day one (and indeed, when I ran into him the other day, pointed out that he didn't remember seeing me at any of the early meetings).

So I don't think we can pin this one solely on the Americans. The truth is that the cold-stout trend is being driven largely by the breweries' need to recruit young lager drinkers, many of whom are, to use the technical marketing term, "morons".

George does raise a good point about the link between climate and beer temperature, though. In fact, according to today's Irish Times, only Moscow (snow, 0C), Montreal (rain, 1C) and Helsinki (snow 1C) had noon-day temperatures on Tuesday lower than Extra Cold Guinness; while Chicago (4), Warsaw (5) and Inverness (6) were only slightly less chilly than the regular draught product.

Anyway, as I explained to Harry, my own conversion to the campaign began a few years ago when I visited the Western town of B----- (To protect identities, I'm writing this paragraph in the style of a Russian novel) I was there to cover a summer school (on the subject of the emancipation of the serfs, or something), and during a break in the lectures (or during the lectures - I can't remember which), I stopped into a pub called M-----'s and ordered a pint of stout.

The barman studied me for a moment. Then he leaned very slightly across the counter and asked: "Would you like it cold or natural?" So, enjoying the frisson of conspiracy in the air, I leaned towards him slightly and replied in a low voice: "The latter".

There are small pockets of resistance all over rural Ireland, which have never accepted the cold beer orthodoxy (or the legitimacy of the Dublin Government, for that matter)

Well, the pint he poured, in three careful instalments, was the best I'd tasted for years. And after a couple more of them, me and the barman were close friends. Which is why, despite all the warnings I received as a child, I had no hesitation accepting when he offered to show me his cold room.

And there, amid all the ordinary beer kegs, was the keg of "natural" Guinness - wrapped in a lagging jacket! This was how the stout temperature remained high, the barman explained, while the journey through the cold room's pipes to the bar ensured the product was easily pourable at the other end.

It was this same barman who showed me the old Guinness thermometer identifying 15C (the Tuesday noonday temperature in Barcelona, Crete and Naples, by the way) as "just right". But when I asked him to go public on the issue, he declined, fearing the wrath of the marketing people.

That barman was not unusual, except in his scientific approach. There are small pockets of resistance all over rural Ireland, which have never accepted the cold beer orthodoxy (or the legitimacy of the Dublin Government, for that matter); and the fact that the room-temperature pint is alive and well in these parts has tended to assuage those of us in the Pale, where cold-pint law is rigidly enforced.

The final straw for me, however, was this past winter's advertising campaign for the new, even cooler product, including as it did such teasing questions as: what is the taste of extra cold? I passed one of these ads on a billboard while cycling home one sleety evening, at a time when the taste of extra cold was coming up my trouser legs (even though I was using wind-chill factor 15). And I thought to myself: enough is enough.

Now, in fairness to Guinness, it must be noted that the cold pint is a response to changing market conditions. Apart from the problem of young lager drinkers, many of whom may have a good sense of Heineken but very little sense of living on an island in the North Atlantic, there's the fact that life is not as slow as it used to be.

Not everybody wants to wait for a slow pint, and colder stout is quicker to pour. There's also the scarcity of good bartenders these days, the sort who - even when the pub is packed to the rafters - will establish immediate eye contact with you in a way that says your call has been queued and will be answered in strict rotation.

The fact is, you wait so long to get the eye of a barman in many places that you're very reluctant, by ordering a slow pint, to give him two more chances to forget you. This is what stout-producers are up against.

So the campaign against cold Guinness has to be fair in its approach. We don't demand warm beer, necessarily - we're not English, after all! And should the brewery people read this, I'm authorised to say that if they're prepared to negotiate, they'll find us flexible on the 15 degrees issue.

In the meantime, to the many people who've expressed support, my message is: we'll be asking you to send money soon. For the moment, though, you should just sit tight.

But let's be clear about this: we're taking on one of the world's great marketing machines here. It's a situation that will require guts. Luckily, we've got big ones.