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Wine gains on beer in Ireland

Immigration and economic growth are altering alcohol preferences. Younger people want a drink that `tastes nice.'

March 15, 2007|From Reuters

DUBLIN — How about a glass of wine to celebrate St. Patrick's Day?

That might not sit well on the stomach of many residents of Ireland's capital Saturday as they mark the year's biggest party with copious quantities of Guinness, the rich, dark beer with a creamy head that is the national drink.

But the cliche of the Irish pub filled with Guinness drinkers is giving way to a different picture as new wealth, new opportunities and immigration transform tastes and drinking habits in one of Europe's fastest-growing economies.

Alongside the decline of Guinness is an increasing appetite for wine, spirits, cider and imported beer.

"You'll still sell Guinness, but you'll sell the likes of wheat beers, beers from the Czech Republic, beers from Poland," said Eddy Martin, who runs the Bailey Bar.

"Beer sales are declining while the amount of wine is phenomenal. Before, people would say they wanted a white wine. Now, they'll say they want a Chardonnay," he said at the bar in the heart of Dublin's toniest shopping district.

Latest figures from global drinks giant Diageo, which owns Guinness, show local sales for the brand down about 7% in the six months to the end of December from a year before. Wine now accounts for more than a fifth of alcohol drunk in Ireland.

"The lifestyle shift has meant that Guinness has been impacted to a higher degree," said Grainne Mackin, Diageo's head of corporate communications in Ireland.

"Instead of sticking to one sort of drink, there are now two or three that people might have, and that has meant we're in competition with a lot more drinks."

The scale of the shift from drinking Guinness, which takes its dark color from roasted barley, appears even more dramatic given that Ireland has the fastest-growing population in the European Union.

"In times gone past, alcohol in this country was an acquired taste. You acquired a taste for porter, or Guinness," said Paul Stevenson, president of the Vintners Assn. of Ireland, which represents pub owners landlords.

"Your father would have brought you to the pub and sat you down and taught you how to drink. That doesn't seem to happen now. When people taste something, they want something instantly which tastes nice."

But the decline of Guinness is by no means global. Sales are doing well in North America and parts of West Africa -- where some drinkers believe the stronger, bottled local version of Guinness helps prevent malaria and enhance male sexual prowess.

Although "Irish pubs" have become a fixture across the globe, many in Ireland have been struggling. Guinness reckons that Irish pubs are opening abroad at the rate of about one a day, the same rate as rural pubs are closing at home.

That is bad news for Guinness. Most people say it is best straight from the tap, a process that should take a couple of minutes to deliver a perfect pint.

"People are cash-rich but time-poor, so there's been a shift away from the amount of times that people are going to the pub," Mackin said.

The trend is toward drinking with food in restaurants as well as in buying wine or beer to drink at home. With a pint of Guinness costing more than 4 euros ($5.29) in a Dublin pub, it may not look that cheap either.

Pub owners complain that other discouraging factors have been a smoking ban and, in rural areas, tougher restrictions on drinking and driving to cut road deaths -- although many point out that Guinness remains their best seller.

"Younger drinkers are more likely to drink lager or cider, more refreshing drinks, especially in the summer, though," said Keith O'Brien, 25, barman at a pub near Dublin's River Liffey.

The big challenge for Guinness is to win over the new generation of drinkers beyond the March 17 St. Patrick's Day festivities.

"Without a doubt, a lot of our Guinness drinkers are older people," said Mackin of Diageo. "A lot of our marketing and branding is focused on attracting younger and newer people. The difficulty is that you cannot alienate your older Guinness drinkers too."

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