It’s lunchtime at the Devonshire in London’s Soho and the bar top is thick with glasses of Guinness. This pub, reopened in November last year, is run by Dubliner Oisín Rogers and Guinness has quickly become a central part of its appeal: More than 60 percent of the beer sold here is Ireland’s famous stout. There are rumors, indeed, that the Devonshire sells more pints of Guinness than anywhere else in the U.K. or Ireland. “Our suppliers reckon there’s nobody close,” Rogers says.
If that makes the Devonshire unique, then this large street-corner pub is typical in another way. Guinness is booming in Britain, at the head of a nitro-stout trend that shows little sign of slowing. Last year British drinks conglomerate Diageo, which owns Guinness, claimed it was the most popular pub pint in Britain (which was true, albeit only for a four-week period in the run-up to Christmas 2022). Meanwhile, at Anspach and Hobday, a small brewery in South London, nitro porter now makes up 70 percent of production, from a standing start in the spring of 2021. As a category, stout grew from 6.9 to 8.1 percent of the market during 2023.
It’s a remarkable turnaround. Until relatively recently, Guinness and its rivals were thought to be old hat in Britain, a niche drink for rugby fans, older Irishmen, and those with an emotional connection to Ireland. Now it’s the most fashionable beer in the country, a social-media staple, a key part of many young drinkers’ online personalities.
And with a new “microbrewery and culture hub,” Guinness at Old Brewer’s Yard in London’s Covent Garden, set to open later this year, the trend shows no sign of running out of steam.
How has this happened?
The answer is complex, but it starts with Covid-19.
There was plenty to miss during the U.K.’s Covid-19 lockdowns. Shops, nightclubs, music venues, theaters, and restaurants were forcibly shut, but it was the conviviality and informality of pubs that people most missed — and a big part of that was Guinness.
“Guinness is one of those things you can’t have at home, in the same way you can’t really do fish and chips,” says Rogers.
Guinness, never short of a smart marketing idea, launched “Looks Like Guinness” in May 2021, a campaign that played on consumers’ unfulfilled desires by featuring everyday sights that resemble a pint of stout: a white cat lying on a black composting bin, for example, or a smoke-blackened chimney pot with white seagulls perching on it. It struck a nerve, and drinkers began to post their own examples on social media.
“It’s a very social drink, it just sparks conversation.”
Of course, Guinness can be enjoyed at home — and Diageo has invested a lot of money in convincing British customers to do just that, from the 2022 launch of Guinness 0.0 to last year’s Nitrosurge, a can-top device that offers, so the promotional material had it, “the ultimate pouring experience from the comfort of your home.”
For aficionados, though, none of this replicates Guinness in the pub.
“It’s a very social drink, it just sparks conversation,” says Rogers, who has spent almost 40 years in the pub world, running the iconic Guinea Grill in Mayfair until recently. “People always want to talk about it. It’s a sensual product.”
Not just sensual, but attractive, too. Modern food culture loves an Instagrammable mouthful, from elaborate donuts to huge sandwiches, and Guinness — ruby-black, domed white foam — fits the bill. “It’s one of the only alcoholic drinks that looks really good in a photo,” says Ian Ryan, author of “A Beautiful Pint: One Man’s Search for the Perfect Pint of Guinness,” out in the U.S. later this month.
It can look bad, too, as Cork-raised Ryan knows well. He launched the Instagram account ShitLondonGuinness in 2019 to record bad pints he’d had in London pubs. A rogues’ gallery of dirty glasses, wrong glasses, ugly foam, and more, it quickly took off (the account now has 248,000 followers, and famous fans including actor Jamie Dornan) and almost certainly fueled Guinness’s popularity. “I’ve probably made a difference to some degree,” he says. “I think pints in London have gotten way better as Guinness has got more popular.”
ShitLondonGuinness’s success also reflects a mild nerdiness about the beer — encouraged and reinforced by decades of Guinness marketing — that puts it somewhere between “stack it up, sell it cheap” macro lager and the fussier end of the craft-beer market. There’s a right glass, a right level of nitrogen (Rogers serves it with an 82/18 nitrogen/carbon dioxide mix, as opposed to the U.K. standard 70/30, making for a smoother, arguably richer mouthful), a proper amount of time for the beer to rest between first and second pours. It’s a beer for aficionados, but — crucially — not one that requires the consumer to try too hard.
“Lockdown gave us the chance to experiment. By the second batch, we were really happy.”
For drinkers like Katie Mather, a writer whose passion for the famous stout led her sister to give her Guinness earrings for Christmas, it’s a reliable, down-to-earth, thoroughly normal treat. When she walks into her local in Lancashire in northern England, she says, the staff start pouring her Guinness. “It’s my go-to,” she says. “That’s not to say that I don’t drink anything else, it’s just the thing I get if I’m in a normal pub.”
Guinness has a long history in Britain. Originally inspired by London Porter, Guinness’s story is pockmarked by significant intervention from across the Irish Sea: There’s artist John Gilroy, for example, who created Guinness’s most iconic advertising, or Michael Ash, inventor of the game-changing nitro pour at Guinness’s former brewery in West London (which closed in 2005 at a time of declining sales). It has been headquartered in the U.K., its biggest market, since 1932.
It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that Guinness’s current boom has inspired British imitators. From Wells’s Genesis Bedford Stout to Brewdog’s Black Heart, Britain is brimming over with new nitro stouts. None, though, have been quite as successful as Anspach and Hobday’s London Black, a nitro porter now served in at least 250 pubs across the U.K.
It’s fuller-flavored than Guinness, roastier and sweeter, a difference that reflects the craft-beer market it supplies (it’s also often cheaper, a result of Diageo’s high pricing). According to Anspach and Hobday co-owner Jack Hobday, it found a ready market among those who enjoyed Guinness but wanted to support a small brewer. “There’d never really been a successful draft nitro stout in the craft-beer sector,” says Hobday, who credits Left Hand’s Eric Wallace for advice on how to make a quality nitro stout. “Lockdown gave us the chance to experiment. By the second batch, we were really happy.”
The New Black
Anspach and Hobday is one of the few smaller British breweries that can look to the future with relative equanimity, and it’s all thanks to London Black. Overall output grew by 30 percent in December, largely thanks to London Black, and it’ll soon go into cans, Hobday says, with export to the U.S. not too long after.
As Guinness booms, meanwhile, it’s not just smaller breweries eyeing the British stout market. Murphy’s, owned by Heineken, has been available in the U.K. for decades but had been on the retreat until recently. Sales are growing, though, and it’s now available in close to 200 pubs — nothing compared to Guinness (which pours in an estimated 36,000, which is most of Britain’s pubs), but the Dutch giants have the financial heft to change that in a hurry (and Murphy’s is generally far cheaper on the bar than Guinness).
Diageo bosses are unlikely to be too worried just yet, though. Back at the Devonshire, as that Friday lunchtime bleeds into early afternoon, deputy bar manager Sam Donohoe — another Dubliner — is pouring pint after pint of Guinness. With the new brewery/museum opening later this year, they could soon be in for even more work.
Could Guinness get even more popular?
“I can’t see how it could,” says Rogers, laughing. “It’s already bananas.”