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Guinness popularity yet to reach a head

Guiness book cover

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KAI RYSSDAL: Ahh, the Irish pub -- warm, inviting, and home to one of the world's best-known beers.

Robert Nevera: On any given busy night we might go through anywhere from three to four kegs of Guinness -- and that probably equates to almost 600-700 beers.

RYSSDAL: Robert Nevera tends the bar at Tom Bergin's Tavern here in Los Angeles. We asked some of his customers what they think when a pint of Guinness lands in front of them.

Tom Bergin Customer #1: Takes me home to Ireland, where the fields are green, and the Guinness is pouring...

Tom Bergin Customer #2: Green...

Tom Bergin Customer #3: Very much pale people.

Tom Bergin Customer #4: It's like an old leather chair, you know? It's comfortable, but you can't really describe why it's comfortable.

RYSSDAL: Bill Yenne's book about Guinness is called Guinness. Mr. Yenne, welcome to the program.

Bill Yenne: Thank you, it's good to be here.

RYSSDAL: Where does Guinness place in the pantheon of the world's great beers?

Yenne: Well, it places number 17 worldwide among all brands. It places number one among all brands with a significant flavor profile.

RYSSDAL: It's an acquired taste, though -- I mean, you pour a can of Bud and you pour a can of Guinness and you're looking at two different beers.

Yenne: Couldn't be looking at beer that is more different... I think that the acquiring of the taste is like the acquiring of taste for lots of -- well, I hate to use the word, but I'll use it anyway -- gourmet products. Part of the magic, part of the fun of those products is acquiring the taste.

RYSSDAL: Where is this beer popular? Obviously Ireland and the U.K. -- where else does it spread?

Yenne: Well, it's growing in North America, and the third-largest market is in Africa. Guinness has been brewed in Nigeria since the mid-60s.

RYSSDAL: Nigeria?

Yenne: Nigeria.

RYSSDAL: Why do you suppose it's so popular there?

Yenne: Well, I think it's popular because it's a wonderful and unique product. And Guinness went in to Africa recognizing there was a huge market where there wasn't a lot of competition.

RYSSDAL: If you look at it, Guinness is doing some things right, because it's been around for 250 years... But how do marketers go out and sell this thing?

Yenne: Well, I think that it is progressively easier because of the craft-brew, the micro-brew revolution that's been going on. I think that has created a huge customer base of people who actively seek a beer with a higher flavor profile. Another dimension to all of that is the strong interest in Irish pubs -- every town's got one or more, and people flock to those places. And part of the aspect of enjoying life in those types of environments is the Guinness.

RYSSDAL: Am I remembering right, that Guinness back in the '90s had a marketing campaign based on creating faux Irish pubs all over the place?

Yenne: Yes it did -- what Guinness has tried to do is provide these guys with the materials, such as signage and color scheme suggestions and things like that, so that they could re-create the ambience of an Irish pub.

RYSSDAL: When you order a pint of Guinness, are you buying the Irishness, or are you buying the beer?

Yenne: Well, I think you're buying a little bit of both. Part of enjoying a pint of Guinness is the place where you do it and the people you do it with. One of the things that people look for and find in Irish pubs is that sense of camaraderie, that sense of community, that sense of fun... You're buying an experience.

RYSSDAL: The book, about what might be the world's most famous beer, Guinness, is by Bill Yenne. Mr. Yenne, thanks a lot for your time.

Yenne: It's been a pleasure to be here.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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