A Quarter-Millennium and Still Brewing

Tonight at a minute to six Ireland time (17:59), Guinness will raise a toast to celebrate 250 years of brewing and selling beer. It was on near* this day in 1759 that Arthur Guinness took out his famous 9,000-year lease on the St. James Gate brewery in Dublin. I will acknowledge this date in stout-loving Beervana with a post or two on the milestone, beginning with a consideration of that quarter-millennium Guinness has managed to stay in business.

We are used to looking backward, and in retrospect, vast numbers do not impress us. Thanks to museums and history books, we have grown comfortable with the distant past, and by this measure, 1759 barely rates. Interestingly, when we look into the future, even modest numbers seem impossibly distant. Global warming gets a yawn because, hey, 2100 is so far in the future, who cares whether the seas are lapping at the shores of Beaverton? So imagine the year 2234. That's when BridgePort will celebrate its 250th. A better perspective on longevity, yes?

With that in mind, let's cast our gaze backward with a little more interest. Envision a cosmic mash tun that can take us back to 1759. What would the world look like?

According to the UN, the world's population was just 800 million people, and most of them lived on farms. This was a pre-industrial, pre-electrical era, so people managed the nights with candles and lamps. It was still a mostly organic world. The steam engine wouldn't be invented for another ten years, so bodies did all the work: men lifted and toted; oxes and horses pulled and conveyed. Ships moved by windpower (it was after the glory days of piracy, but boats were still powered by sails). This pre-industrial phase also coincided with the peak of the Little Ice Age, so I expect it was a mite chilly in old Dublin town.

It was an interesting time historically and intellectually. The upheaval of the reformation led to the rise of empire and during Guinness' time, Europe was enjoying the fruit of the enlightenment. As empires rose and grew, revolutions percolated. (It was the year Voltaire published Candide.) America's was 15 years away France's 30. But for all that, it was only relatively enlightened. Colonists were busy importing slaves to the US--where, we sometimes forget, they were common even in the North. There wasn't a single democracy and the idea of rule by the people was inconceivable. Instead, empires with now-strange names were common: Prussia, Qing (Manchu), Ottoman, Persia, and Mughal.

North America was still mostly unexplored, and although decimation of native nations had begun on the East Coast, in the Midwest and West, Native Americans continued their undisturbed ways of life.

The founding of Guinness also came during that age of the rise of private capital and the idea of the modern business. Adam Smith published The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a work that would be instructive in forming the ideas he published later in Wealth of Nations. Breweries were timeless, and there remain extant examples that pre-date Guinness. But Guinness was, by Protz's account, a businessman from the start, not an old-world craftsman. He was sharp enough to sign the famous 9,000-year lease, also securing free water and also bought a neighboring flour mill to ensure a regular supply of grain. When the rise of porter's popularity started flooding in from England 30 years later, Guinness started brewing it in Dublin and by 1799 made it his sole product.

Guinness prospered, and the company's early bio reads like a modern corporation: he battled local government over taxes and eventually gained enough influence to become sole supplier to Dublin Castle. He became the first national brewer in Ireland, using barges to distribute his ale. And the brewery continued to innovate, creating a "double porter" by the end of the century and finally, under Arthur's son (also Arthur) created the "dry" style that came to typify Irish stouts. The company's marketing and business success in subsequent decades--centuries--is legend.

So there you have it, 250 years. Quite a thing, and certainly makes it a lovely day for a Guinness.

*Text corrected. See long, interesting debate in comments below.