$40 million shrine to Irish beer

SUN JOURNAL

Guinness: In the middle of Dublin is an old fermentation plant updated into the Disney World of brewing.

March 07, 2002|By Andrew Ratner | Andrew Ratner,SUN STAFF

DUBLIN, Ireland - The most popular tourist attraction here used to be the Book of Kells, an ornate manuscript created 800 years after Jesus' birth that is stored on the Gothic campus of Trinity College.

Now, the most popular attraction is a beer factory.

But not any beer factory.

Guinness, one of the oldest and best-known companies in Ireland, spent $40 million to transform a vacant, outdated fermentation plant into a seven-story visitor and conference center.

The site drew nearly 600,000 people in its inaugural year, which was hampered by tourist fears over the agricultural hoof-and-mouth disease and the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in the United States. Guinness expects eventually to reach 1 million visitors a year.

The so-called Guinness Storehouse is more like the Disney World of beer than a faux plant tour. It includes an indoor waterfall, walk-through vats as large as two-car garages and a circular rooftop bar with the most spectacular view in the center of Ireland's ancient capital city.

"That's the `wow' factor," company spokeswoman Jane Doyle says of the so-called Gravity Bar. "People don't expect when they ride up on the glass lift [elevator] to see that kind of view of the city."

"This is the best-kept secret in Dublin," crows a bartender here, David Johnston, 23, of Tipperary.

Not quite, anymore.

Bill Clinton was one of the first visitors, arriving a week after the attraction opened in December 2000. American country music star Emmy Lou Harris has been here. So has the British girl-band Atomic Kitten. The U.S. Marines held a birthday bash here. And a few weeks ago, Ireland's Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, a frequent visitor, arrived to present awards to the country's biggest rugby, soccer and Gaelic football stars.

The company previously received tourists in an old vat house nearby. Attendance had grown to almost a half-million a year there, much more than the place could handle. So company officials brainstormed, deciding in 1996 to renovate a storehouse that had been empty for about a decade.

Actually, the building had some claim to fame in its own right. It was built in 1904 as the first steel-grade structure in the British Isles. Guinness executives had traveled to Chicago at the turn of the 20th century for some beer-making tips and returned home instead with new ideas about factory construction and design, says Randal Suttle, an architect with Robinson Keefe Devane, the Dublin firm that worked on the recent remodel.

Guinness' reputation for innovation had begun long before. Arthur Guinness, an Irishman, founded the company in 1759, after signing a 9,000-year lease for an old brewery called St. James's Gate. Guinness is still produced on the site, in more technologically advanced facilities.

Arthur Guinness believed that the water there, from the Dodder-Poddle channel, was ideal for making beer. (The rivers Poddle and Liffey eventually joined to form what 9th-century Norse Vikings described as a dark pool, or dubh linn - hence the city's name.)

In 1799, Guinness stopped brewing ale. He switched to a new, bitter, mahogany-colored brew that was gaining popularity in London, especially among the market porters who worked up a thirst on the job. Guinness' porter brew became a big hit.

The company was successful enough to be able to offer workers paid holidays, health care and guaranteed pensions for widows and orphans, a rarity at the time. "Get yourself a Guinness man" was a popular saying among the women in the Pimlico neighborhood around the plant.

Among the company's most skilled employees were the coopers, who built their barrels without nails, with just steam pressure, to store the beer, and the "smellers" who used their keen noses to weed out sour barrels. If one of them failed a smell test administered every few years, he had to return to his old task in the factory.

Fast-forward to the mid-20th century: Guinness went beyond brewing, emerging as a major marketing force. It became the Coca-Cola of Europe, not just because it produced a popular beverage, but because its clever print ads and, later, television commercials set the standard for the continent's advertising industry.

"Guinness is good for you," one of the best known of the slogans, was conceived after Irish physicians had written to the company to claim that the beer held recuperative powers for some patients.

Artist John Gilroy devised a series of ads of cartoon animals that became a fixture here for 40 years. Walt Disney, impressed by the quality of the animation, reportedly tried to lure away Gilroy - to no avail.

By the 1990s, global advertising firms such as J. Walter Thompson were winning awards for Guinness television commercials laced with ample doses of Irish puckishness.

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