Beer war brewing

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Hang onto your barstools, an Irish beer war is brewing in the city.

The first skirmish broke out yesterday at an Old City pub, where angry Gaelic bar owners confronted execs from Guinness, makers of the world-famous stout.

No suds were spilled, but hot tempers had a lot of neck veins bulging from ‘neath the cardigans.

The uproar was prompted by word that the Guinness Bass Import Co., of Stamford, Conn., is offering start-up help to newcomers seeking to open Irish theme bars. The importer also has an arm’s-length relationship with an Atlanta turnkey company that outfits a chain of popular Irish bars.

Sparked by rumors that the chain is coming to town, about 20 local bar owners met with a half-dozen Guinness execs during a two-hour meeting at the Plough and Stars, 2nd and Chestnut streets.

“Every time you blink, another Irish pub opens up,” said Chris Mullins, owner of McGillin’s on Drury Lane, Center City, the city’s oldest bar.

“We just don’t need a multinational company to assist our competitors.”

Connie Doolan, director of Guinness Bass Import’s trade relations, tried to soothe tempers. “We’re not competing with Irish pubs,” he explained, “. . .We’re expanding the sales of Guinness.”

That’s a fine line for the city’s publicans, many of whom have been pouring the rich, black stout for decades. They regard themselves as loyal Guinness supporters; now, they believe, the company is stabbing them in the back.

The dispute is part of the increasingly troublesome interpretation of the nation’s post-Prohibition ban on so-called “tied houses.” Under federal law, breweries are prohibited from operating their own bars, or houses. The law stems from a fear that big brewers would buy up scores of bars and dampen competition.

(The exception is brewpubs, like Poor Henry’s in Northern Liberties, where breweries may sell beer they produce on site.)

Mark O’Connor, who owns the Irish Pub, 20th and Walnut streets, said Guinness is bending the rules. He charged the brewery is reaping financial rewards by providing business and management guidance to start-ups, which then serve thousands of pints of Guinness.

According to O’Connor, the brewery is also encouraging the popular Fado chain to open in Center City.

“Guinness is bringing tied houses to the United States,” O’Connor said. “The company that sells us beer is enabling people to go into the Irish pub business. . .”

An official at Fado (pronounced: F’doe) confirmed the chain had been interested in opening at 15th and Locust, but those plans fell through. The official insisted the chain has no business relationship with Guinness.

Even without Fado, the continued growth of Irish popular culture (from the music of “Riverdance” to the novels of Frank McCourt to films like “Waking Ned Devine”) means more shamrock saloons will likely join the 40 or so that are already here.

O’Connor and others want to stop Guinness from giving the newcomers any help.

“It’s time to make a stand,” O’Connor declared.

If this were a full-fledged war, you might expect the protesting bar owners to stop pouring Guinness – or at least toss a keg of the stuff into the Delaware.

But bar owners – even irate Irish ones – aren’t ready for a bare-knuckles fight. Most are decorated with Guinness paraphernalia and the brewery’s stout is among their most-popular sellers. As one bar owner told Joe Sixpack, “You can’t very well call yourself an Irish bar in America if you don’t serve Guinness, now can ya?”

So, O’Connor and Mullins are urging the city’s Irish bars to do the next best thing: dump Bass Ale.

Yes, that’s a British brew. But Bass is imported by the same folks who bring Guinness to these shores. Maybe that’ll send a message, O’Connor said.

Maybe, but that will take something that Philadelphia bar owners – Irish or otherwise – rarely exhibit: cooperation.

“People in the tavern business tend not to work together,” said Jim Anderson, publisher of Beer Philadelphia magazine. “Maybe this is a start.”

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