A few years ago when living in Dublin, I was looking in the classifieds and saw an advertisement looking for a “Brand Ambassador” for a drinks company. This, I thought, would be right up my alley. I filled out the application, did the interview and got the job. The position turned out to be working to promote the new concept of Guinness Mid Strength. This is a Guinness with less alcohol than the average one, but not too little that it wouldn’t have any effect. I signed along the dotted line – got the company car, mobile and expense account and went on my way.
Now there were a few great things about this job. The first was that once again I was needed in the hallowed halls of James’ gate, the HQ of worldwide Guinness. I had a store room for all my posters, beer mats and bar paraphernalia which was hidden around the back of these big store rooms on the factory site. I hummed in such an air of contentedness when I drove around those alleyways. At times I had to pick up kegs for customers who had run out of product. This would involve going onsite to the keg delivery yard. This yard was massive – ten or twelve football fields, with kegs stacked as far as the eye could see. It was truly a sight to behold.
The second major plus about the job was that my role essentially involved driving from bar to bar (ten different ones per week), chatting to the managers about business and the Mid Strength, and then buying pints for punters. As a former taste tester for Guinness, this would be the next best thing – sharing the love. My job was to go into pubs and shout people drinks. It was a beautiful thing. I would saddle up to folk, give them a little blurb about the drink and then buy them one. That was what I did. On occasion I would have a pint myself. So essentially I would go into a bar, order a pint, start chatting to people, buy them some drinks and then head off, happy that a good days work had been done.
At the time I was on the Dublin GAA panel, and life was cushy. My respective bosses in Guinness and the company I was outsourced to loved nothing more than to talk GAA and booze. I was in my complete element. I worked my own roster, did the calls to the pubs when I wanted to and everyone was happy with how I was performing. The Mid Strength was performing adequately but well enough that they decided to roll out a Carlsberg version too. This was put into my portfolio and now I had a second option to offer the drinkers when I was out and about.
Now the reaction to lower strength alcohol is one of two extremes in Ireland. There is the small percentage, I’d say 5-10% who think “oh yeah, I can see myself drinking this during the week…when I want to be social without the hangover…sure”. There is another small % who thought that it makes sense if you want to have a pint or two and drive home. The official line from Guinness was that they would never condone drinking and driving. So there! But let me assure you dear reader, that the vast, vast majority of punters who I spoke to just could not see the benefit of paying the same price for something with less alcohol. It just didn’t work. No amount of examples, samples and stories pertaining to its virtues could shake their pejorative interpretation of the notion “less alcohol”.
It showed me that in general the Irish don’t equate the drinking of a pint with simple bonding. Although it is a part of the ritual, an important aspect is to also alter the senses to a hefty degree. Sharing a drink with someone involves lulling into at least a gentle level of inebriation. In a lot cases this level can plummet to flat out drunken rahoolery. There is nothing wrong with this per se, but the implications are quite obvious – the vast majority of us like to get drunk. This happens a lot and therefore it is natural to assume that the vast majority have to some degree, got a drinking problem.
As my progress with the company developed, an opportunity came up to work as a rep for a few months in Meath and Cavan. I took the chance and soon I was driving around the fields of Ireland, selling the finest of sprits and ales to the publicans of the fair country. Two major things happened around this time. The first was that my involvement with the Dubs ended. Pillar had stepped down as manager and I was surplus to requirements with the next manager. Three years of clicking my heels on the subs bench had been pretty much all I could bear anyway, so I was released back to my status as an average citizen of the world. The second was that the Irish economy collapsed under the strain of the banking sector implosion. Splattered it was, like a bag of wet rags on the cold dawn concrete of ze unpassend Autobahn.
After I was released from the strictures of semi professional training with the Dubs, I got right back into bad habits. Drinking heavily, smoking hashish and taking recreational drugs at the weekends. I would take days off work, calling occasional bars occasionally from the comfort of the couch with a spliff in me gob. I played more stoned golf and playstation than I knew possible. My work performance dropped. I dodged work at every conceivable juncture. My contract was up for renewal in two months but I knew that things were finished for me. It was then that I took the plunge and booked flights back to Australia. I was on a spiral that was bringing me back Down Under.
When I returned to Ireland at Christmas just gone, I was mildly surprised to see Guinness Mid Strength on sale in my local. The bartender told me that it was going well and quite popular. It was a little like seeing an old friend – an inanimate old friend who doesn’t know you exist, but an old friend nonetheless. Ireland is still bogged deep in the quagmire of failing economic and governmental policies. I am now sober as a bar of chocolate and still living in OZ, where mid strength and low strength beers do a roaring trade. The perception over here is so much different to Ireland where it is ok not to get buckled or even drink regular strength alcohol. Couple of light beers with your dinner does not mean you are weak. It means you are in control. Will us Paddies ever learn?