Guinness has gotten city taverns’ Irish up

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An Irish bar without Guinness Stout? That Erin-go-bragger with the fake brogue and the Notre Dame jacket would have you believe that’s the beer-drinking equivalent of St. Paddy’s Day without leprechauns.

But in a burgeoning protest that’s worth watching, a handful of shamrock publicans – upset over the brewing giant’s possible commercial interests in Philadelphia – insist they can be green without Guinness.

At least three traditional Irish bars – which go through up to 10 kegs a week each – have pulled the famously creamy ale off their taps. They’re yanking down the brewery’s advertising signs and even banning other products (notably Harp and Bass) that are distributed by Guinness’s American importer.

“We have to hurt them in the pocketbook,” said Mark O’Connor, one of the boycott’s leaders who owns a pair of Walnut Street bars – both called the Irish Pub – at 12th and 20th streets.

Nearby, McGillin’s Olde Ale House (1310 Drury St.) and O’Neal’s (3rd and South streets) have also booted Guinness.

The boycott stems from fears that the Guinness Bass Import Co. of Stamford, Conn., is involved in the commercial development of a nationwide chain of trendy Irish bars called Fado.

Guinness says it is doing nothing more than attempting to sell more stout. It reasons in one corporate memorandum, “If there were more Irish pubs, there would be dramatically more Guinness sales.” Thus, in Europe, it has developed scores of Irish pubs – in France, Denmark, Russia and elsewhere.

In the United States, however, federal “tied house” laws prohibit breweries (except small brewpubs) from operating bars. The laws are designed to prevent large corporate breweries from monopolizing the traditionally small, privately owned tavern trade.

So the brewery instead commissioned a separate company – called Irish Pub Co. (no relation to the local joint) of Atlanta – to develop “authentic pub designs that capture the most successful pub styles found in Ireland. The result was Fado (say it, F’doe), which means “long ago” in Gaelic.

Not surprisingly, the protesting bar owners note, Fado primarily carries products from Guinness Bass Import Co.

Guinness says it has no direct financial relationship with Fado’s developers. The restaurant’s developers say they have no immediate plans to build a Fado here. Meanwhile, representatives at the city’s Guinness importing distributor, Antonio Origlio Inc., say the brewery is not violating any federal laws.

“There is no tied-house relationship,” said Michael Gray, director of marketing at Origlio.

Even if that’s true, the local bar owners believe Guinness is violating the spirit of the law. Worse, they grumble, the possibility that they may have to compete against a slick chain that they believe was financed by their own sales of Guinness is a slap in the face.

“It’s a stab in the back,” said O’Neal’s owner Tom Mooney. “We’ve poured Guinness for 15 years. It’s bars like ours that made this brewery, and now they’re trying to steal our business.

“I no longer have any respect for the Guinness Import Co. I couldn’t sleep at night and serve their beer.”

O’Neal’s kicked its last keg of Guinness last weekend.

Mooney and the other owners acknowledge that the boycott is a difficult step. Many of their customers expect to find the familiar Guinness logo among the tap handles, and the bars themselves are filled with Guinness paraphernalia. Even some of the boycott sympathizers, like the Bards (20th and Walnut) and the Plough and the Stars (2nd and Chestnut), still serve the stout because they believe they’ll lose customers to competitors.

Mooney told me over a pint last week that bar owners need to get past that fear. “If you think the Guinness brand is bigger than your pub,” he said, “you should re-assess your business.” When customers ask for Guinness, his bartenders hand them a flyer explaining why he pulled the stout, then they suggest an alternative, like Beamish.

Across town at the Irish Pub, O’Connor is serving Murphy’s. He insists it’s not the brand that makes the pub. “We have to believe in our places and realize that people come there because of us, not the Guinness.”

At McGillin’s, owner Chris Mullins said, “I’m very confident we can live without it. After all, McGillin’s [the city’s oldest bar] didn’t serve Guinness from 1860 to 1993, and we survived.”

To make their point, the three bars – along with about a dozen other local taverns – will go up against tomorrow night’s annual Great Guinness Toast. The bars are sponsoring their own event, called the Murphy’s Challenge.

The bars will donate a portion of the evening’s profits from the sale of Murphy’s Stout or Amber to the Irish Famine Memorial that is being developed at Penn’s Landing.

“Don’t be bamboozled,” Mooney charged. “They say that in America, in order to be Irish, you have to drink Guinness and watch Notre Dame football on Saturdays. It just isn’t true.”

Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a pint of Young’s Double Chocolate Stout.


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