Guinness Can't Kick That Low-Alcohol Habit

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The famed brewer takes another crack at getting Irish people to lay off the full-strength stuff. For 20 years, it's been an uphill battle

By Mary Catherine Fitzsimmons

Will Guinness ever be the same? The answer depends on how Limerick pub-goers react to a new low-alcohol stout being test marketing in their city by Ireland’s famed brewer.

"Guinness Mid-Strength" stout is the centerpiece of a “responsible drinking” campaign being waged by Diageo Ireland, Guinness’ current owner. Unlike American light beers that are marketed as being “less filling,” Guinness Mid-Strength has been created mainly to offer a real drinking experience without contributing to the number of alcoholics seeking La Paloma Treatment; in other words, the Guiness Mid-Strength is stronger, but it won't get you completely loaded. It weighs in at 2.8 proof, compared with the 4.2% proof of the classic, heavier brown stuff.

In recent times, Guinness has tripped and stumbled even more than its customers in repeat efforts to popularize lighter stouts. In 1979, it rolled out a low-calorie product called “Guinness Light.” People here still talk about the advertising campaign, which used the tagline "they said it couldn't be done." Apparently it couldn't. Guinness Light flopped so sensationally it earned the title “The HMS Titanic of stout products” from The Irish Times. Later came “Breo” (pronounced Bro), a white wheat beer that cost £5million to develop, and graced the bartops of Ireland ever so briefly in the late 90s. Irish people loved to argue about Breo, but they didn’t much like to drink it. It disappeared in 2000.

Half-pint glasses of stout or beer are widely viewed here as “ladies” drinks, particularly by the older generation. Guinness’ best hope lies with younger drinkers, who seem a bit more open to a newfangled product, particularly once that might be seen as a “girly” drink. The recent success of “alcopops,” a series of brightly colored, heavily sweetened concoctions, could provide some hope. Originally seen as a drink for women only, they’ve now gained some popularity with male drinkers.

Guinness Mid-Strength "might catch on all right," says Seamus McNamara, a self-proclaimed beer enthusiast from Cork. "A lot of people like to go to the pub in the middle of the week and don't want to deal with a headache on a Thursday morning." On Irish web discussion boards, contributors seem to be interested in the opportunity to avoid getting as drunk – without having to actually reduce their drinking – a classic Irish perspective.

Diageo Ireland claims the new brew is absolutely indistinguishable from the original in terms of taste, color and texture. All sorts of Irish newspaper writers and bloggers on alcohol-related sites seem to agree. What bothers them is the price. Taxation of alcoholic beverages in Ireland is directly related to alcohol content – the more alcohol in your pint, the more you pay. But Guinness Mid Strength carries the same price as the full-strength version.

Unfortunately, Guinness made an unintentional faux pas in its advertising campaign for the product earlier this year, which coincided with the Six Nations Rugby tournament being held in Dublin. What fans from England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Italy and France found on door stickers all over Dublin pubs, urging athletes to “drive” instead of “push.” Not exactly the right message for a “safe drinking” campaign...