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Brewery Visit - Europe

Part 1: Early Days, No 1 Brew House and the Beers

Wednesday 13th May 2015

Bob Thompson

Guinness1 1The following articles recount a visit to the world-famous Guinness brewery with extensive historical notes to provide a context to what was seen. Yet, I must add that I am not a historian, just someone with an active interest in breweries, ancient and modern, so please don’t expect a scholarly approach and anyway more books have been written about this brewery than any other. Here at Guinness, I found everything to interest the brewery visitor, from the ancient to the modern. Please forgive any errors. However everything has been done to ensure the articles are checked before publication and are factually correct.

The day was slowly brightening up as I walked along James Street to the main entrance of the Guinness brewery in Dublin. There is so much history contained within the brewery walls it is difficult to know where to start. However the brewery’s reception is a very good place to begin as it was once the home of Arthur Guinness, the founder. It’s at 1, St Thomas Street and is also the company’s registered address. St Thomas Street is the eastern continuation of James’s Street.

Guinness1 2Arthur’s rise to fame began in Leixlip, Co. Kildare where he was working for Archbishop Price of the Church of Ireland. It is believed that he had some involvement in brewing for the Archbishop, but not, it seems, in an official capacity.

He must have been well thought of, as when the Archbishop died in 1752 he received £100 from his will, a fair sum of money in those days. With this, along with some of his father’s savings, he bought a brewery in Leixlip in 1755.

As a complete aside, Leixlip is one of the few names left in Ireland that is of Norse origin; the Vikings once occupied this area even before the Normans, and it translates as Salmon’s Leap. Lax in Norwegian and Lachs in German are the present day words for Salmon.

The brewery in Leixlip must have been profitable as in 1759 he had enough to purchase a brewery at St James’s Gate, Dublin from Mark Rainsford. He paid £100 pounds for it plus a ground rent of £45 per annum leased for 9,000 years.

Guinness1 3This remarkable period of time is said to be a reflection on the state of the brewery which was actually derelict, and that Mr Rainsford just wanted to vest himself of these 4 acres. The word “ruined” is used several times in the inventory.

It certainly was turned round quickly and by the 1760s the house at No 1 Thomas Street was used as the family home of Arthur Guinness.

The first shipments of beer to mainland Britain occurred in 1769. It is said in the records of Guinness that ale and porter were brewed at the beginning. It soon became a profitable business, although another source indicates that it may have been an ale-only brewery.

Fast forward to 2015 and I join up with the august members of the Brewery History Society for a tour around this iconic brewery. Our guide is Eddie Bourke, a member of the BHS but more crucially, a Microbiologist for the company.

The first thing we had to do was to change to safety footwear and carry safety glasses for use in certain parts of the premises.

Guinness1 4We were soon in the yard of the original brewery. The old Brew House (No 1 Brewery) was once on one side and on other sides were Vat Houses 1 and 2. These were constructed in the 1790s. The top left photograph shows the No 2 Vat House. Please note that is of stone construction. For Vat House think of Maturation Cellar.

I was really surprised to see there were still some giant wooden vats visible through the windows, quite amazing! They cannot have been used for a very, very long time and are seriously interesting because of that.

If you look closely at the other photograph (above right) above you can discern one through a window. The metal bands can clearly be seen contrasting with the dark stained wood of the vessel, not unlike a giant wooden barrel.

The photograph on the right shows Vat House No 1 which is constructed of brick, in contrast to the other.

Guinness1 5A short distance away there was, confusingly another Vat House No 1. However this was of more modern brick construction, although still over 150 years old. This was built for maturating beer from the later No 2 Brew House. See photograph below right.

As we made our way into a more modern part of the brewery there was much evidence of the narrow gauge railway that connected the various stores with the brew houses and it was the way that the raw materials made their way to the plant. It was also the route for filled casks from the Vat Houses down to the riverside from where they were dispatched. More on the railway in Part 2.

Guinness1 6Towards the end of the 18th Century the popularity of Porter increased in Ireland. The style originated in breweries that served the pubs around the markets of London. Hence its name came from the group of workers that drank it most, so it is said. Irish brewers were keen to brew this type of beer and some even employed English brewers to achieve that goal.

Such was the demand for it, Guinness brewed its last batch of ale on 22nd April 1799 in order to produce more porter. Whilst researching the Guinness beers of the 19th Century, I kept coming back to Ron Pattison’s European Beer Guide ( He is a great researcher of earlier beer styles and at the same time manages to provide this information in a manner that is easy to comprehend. So, I acknowledge the assistance of his web site in identifying the many different beers brewed by the company.

Porter had been known as just that until 1801 when another, Keeping Porter was introduced. As I understand it, this is a beer that is matured longer and then is blended with a little younger beer to maintain freshness. The next beer was Country Porter and this came onto the market in 1803.

Guinness1 7This might have replaced the Keeping Porter. This beer went through many phases and Guinness Porter was last brewed in 1973. I well remember visiting Belfast in the late 1960s and in a pub (sorry, no recollection of which one, but it was very busy indeed) came across Guinness Porter served from a hand pump.

We asked for a pint and the bar tender questioned our request, yet we persevered. This particular pub normally used the cask Porter to top off a pint of the Stout, it was easier to control and served the customers quicker.

Guinness1 8Back in the 19th Century it was known as “Plain” Porter, presumably to distinguish it from the other porters. It is immortalised in rhyme by Flann O’Brien in his poem “The Workman’s Friend” with the line “A pint of Plain is your only man”. Plain is a name that has now been adopted by the Porterhouse Brewing Co. for one of their three porters and stouts and I can attest that it is a very good beer indeed. Please see other articles in BeerVisits on this brewery and their pubs.

Guinness1 9Superior Porter was the next, being intermittently brewed from 1806 onwards, and permanently from 1821. It became Double Stout in the 1840s and from 1896 onwards it was Extra Stout. Thus, it was the ancestor of today’s Extra Stout. Although back in those days its strength was around 7.0% abv, much stronger than the beer we drink these days.

Finally there was West Indies Porter which was another beer that was only brewed occasionally at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. By 1840 it was being brewed all the time and was named Triple Stout. From 1896 it was Foreign Export Double Stout. It was brewed identically to the Extra Stout but then considerably more hops were added. The finished product was 7.8% abv, necessary to maintain quality for the long sea journeys this beer often made.

As for their beers, that’s more or less as it stayed until the 1950s. Of course the strengths dropped considerably, especially after the First World War. This is with the exception of Foreign Export Double Stout which kept its high alcohol levels. Sometime later this beer became known as Foreign Extra Stout.

In Part 2 I look at the railway that was so essential for the brewery’s massive expansion in the 1870s.

Part 1 of 7