Saturday 25 October 2014

Lubricating our social occasions

Ronan Abayawickrema explores how Irish drinking habits have changed over the past century

Gargle, scoops, jars, sauce, the black stuff, wet, tiff, the cratur. The Inuits may not have 200 words for snow (that's a myth, apparently), but we certainly have an impressive lexicon of nicknames for drink.

This rich slang vocabulary is proof of the importance of a social drink or two in Irish culture, but what we drink and how we do it has changed significantly over the last century. A market once dominated by porter, stout, ale and whiskey is now far more diverse, with lager, wine and cider all making considerable inroads in recent years. And even drinking a pint of Guinness, arguably the country's most iconic drink, is a completely different experience to what it was 60 years ago.

"There are differences (between) the Guinness, that, say, our grandfathers would have drunk to the Guinness we drink today," says Guinness archivist Eibhlin Roche. "Indeed, the Guinness that would have been on sale in Ireland throughout the 19th and early 20th Century (was) the product that we would call Guinness Extra Stout today," she adds.

"The creamy pint of Guinness that we know today is actually only just over 50 years old," notes Ms Roche. Draught Guinness was a new product launched as part of the brewery's bicentenary celebrations in 1959.

Yet even the original Guinness stout popular before the draught version was launched had been an innovative product in its day, quickly superseding what had been the traditional beers before its advent; ale and porter.

"Porter was the original term for this dark drink using roasted barley," created in the early 1700s, says Ms Roche.

By the beginning of the 19th Century, brewers, including Guinness, started making "a stouter version" of porter, which was to become known as stout.

"Even up until the mid-20th Century, the brewery was brewing both a stout and a porter," says Ms Roche.

Ale, in the form of Smithwick's -- another venerable Irish brand -- survived alongside stout, but porter died out, until its recent revival on a small scale by some craft breweries.

Yet the variety of brands and types of beer available half a century ago was wider than you might think.

"If you go back 40 or 50 years ago, there was a lot of regionalisation in the beer market . . . McArdles (in Dundalk), if you go to Cork, Murphys and Beamish . . . and Harp up north," says Donall O'Keeffe, chief executive of the Licensed Vintners' Association.

Harp was a lager launched by Guinness in 1960, but later innovations such as Guinness Light (1979) and the weissbier-style Breo (late 1990s), were less successful.

The concept of draught Guinness at home did catch on, however, first with 'Bottled Draft' Guinness in the early 1980s, which, rather quaintly, came complete with a plastic syringe with which to inject air, and then, in 1988, widget cans.

Babycham, a perry, was aimed at the female market, as was wine spritzer West Coast Cooler, which has managed to endure and largely shed the 1980s kitsch image of its rival. Wine also became increasingly common in Irish pubs, in part driven by changing tastes as more people enjoyed Mediterranean holidays.

But what are the most popular drinks for women today?

"It depends on the occasion," says Mr O'Keeffe, "so if it's a bunch of girls together, on a midweek night, or on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, it would tend to be wine, but if . . . they're out for the night (at the weekend), it might be bottles of beer, or vodka and something, vodka and tonic, vodka and coke."

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