Bye-bye Beamish

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WE COULD BE drinking the last, wee bit of Beamish by St. Patrick’s Day.

The importer of the creamy, dark stout, one of the few Irish alternatives to Guinness, has shut off the faucet to America. Unless the tiny Cork brewery – Ireland’s oldest – comes up with a way to sidestep the cutoff, we’ll be hitting the bottom of the keg within a month or two.

That’s disastrous news for a handful of independent-minded Philadelphia tavern owners who have been boycotting Guinness for the past six years because of the brewery’s suspected ties to a number of Irish-themed tavern chains.

“This is a big victory for Guinness,” said Chris Mullins, of McGillin’s Old Ale House, in Center City. “It’s globalization at its worst. “

“I don’t know what I’ll do if we lose Beamish,” added Tom Mooney, who owns O’Neals near South Street. “We would have to go back to Guinness with our tail between our legs. “

Beamish’s owner, the giant Scottish & Newcastle PLC, quietly decided earlier this year to pull the plug on Beamish exports to America, to concentrate on sales of Newcastle Brown Ale. It will also ax U.S. exports of John Courage Amber Lager and McEwan’s IPA. (The more popular McEwan’s Scotch Ale is still alive, however. )

“It’s really just a focusing of our initiative that we’ve got going on globally and in the U.S. market,” said Bill Wetmore, marketing director for California-based Scottish & Newcastle Importers, a subsidiary of the brewing conglomerate. “We’re streamlining the U.S. portfolio.

“We recognize the support Philadelphia has given us,” Wetmore continued. “It’s probably the one market where [leaving] is going to be the biggest disappointment. “

Wetmore said his firm shipped about 120,000 cases of Beamish into the United States last year. That’s just a blip, though, compared to its imports of Newcastle Brown Ale, which last year reached 6 million cases.

Beamish may have simply gotten lost in Newcastle’s wake, said Alf Smiddy, managing director for Beamish & Crawford in Ireland.

“Scottish & Newcastle have taken the brand into the States so far as they could,” Smiddy said. “But in so many ways, Beamish may be too much of a specialty niche brand, compared against Newcastle Brown Ale. Sometimes when you have smaller brands, they tend to get lost. “

While S&N – the UK’s largest brewing conglomerate – may hardly notice the loss of Beamish sales in the United States, the cutoff would be a huge blow to the brewery itself. Beamish, which began brewing stout in 1792, has struggled heroically to maintain sales at home and abroad against the dominating presence of Guinness, which now controls 88 percent of the Irish stout market.

Smiddy vowed this week in a phone interview that his firm would find a way to continue exporting to America.

“We very much are looking to ensure that we can secure a new distribution route into the States,” Smiddy said. “The American market is hugely important to us. “

Likewise, Beamish is hugely important to many Philadelphia taverns.

Guinness is still the No. 1 Irish stout in the city, but Beamish sells well here, thanks to a quirky but resolute boycott of Guinness by a handful of local pub owners. The protest was sparked by the opening in 2000 of Fado, a trendy Irish-theme bar at 15th and Locust streets that is part of an Atlanta-based Irish-theme restaurant chain.

The local bar owners say the chain was created partly by Guinness’ American importer to market its stout nationwide, which they believe gives the chain an unfair advantage over Philadelphia’s traditional neighborhood Irish pubs. Under U.S. law, breweries (other than brewpubs) are forbidden to own taverns, an arrangement common in Europe that’s known as a “tied house. ” Guinness denies any ownership in the Fado chain.

Though the boycott didn’t dent Guinness sales too much, it did spread Beamish throughout the city. Today Philadelphia is the brewery’s No. 3 market in America, behind Denver and Milwaukee, S&N said.

Part of that is due to the price; Beamish is about $20 cheaper for a half-keg.

But loyal Beamish drinkers insist their beer tastes better than Guinness. Mooney said that, despite Guinness’s well-known name and lore, Beamish still does well in his bar. “We sell more Beamish than we ever sold of Guinness,” he said. “I’ve never had one person walk out because we don’t sell Guinness. “

What will boycotting owners put on their nitrogen taps if Beamish can’t return?

Murphy’s Irish Stout, made in Cork by Heineken, is a logical alternative, though Mooney said, “I can’t get anyone to drink that stuff. “

He and Mullins said they’d switch to O’Reilly’s Stout, made by Sly Fox Brewing, in Phoenixville.

“It’s just as good,” said Mullins. “But the big problem is it’s not made in Ireland, and that’s what a lot of customers want. “

But he added, “I will not go back to Guinness, not as long as they support places like Fado and Kildare’s,” another area Irish-theme bar chain. *

Joe Sixpack by Don Russell appears weekly in Big Fat Friday. This week’s column was written with a glass of Batch 373, a robust American porter from Magic Hat. 

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