This is an excellent story of the development of a business over a period of more than two centuries. It's a fascinating read whether you're interested in the brewing of beer or in adapting a business to changing times and situations.
In addition to brewing one of the great beers of the world, Guinness also proved adept at developing markets and distribution systems, marketing their beverages in changing times, adapting products to the realities of markets, and using technology to improve both products and distribution.
Brewing was an industry that could achieve economies of scale before the Industrial Revolution. The Guinness family understood that. But they also understood that achieving great scale was worthless if you didn't also develop markets where people could drink your product and distribution systems to get it there.
Throughout the history of the firm, Guinness has been willing to adapt products to the need of the market. India Pale Ale, for example, was a hoppier product and one higher in alcohol content than other products so that it would withstand the ocean voyage to India. When lagers became popular, Guinness began producing lagers.
The story of Guinness, like the story of every successful and long-lived business is a story of good decisions and bits of good luck. It was a good decision, for example, to make a strong effort to establish Guinness as a brand in the days when the more dominant brands were local bottlers.
But luck also kicked in at various times in the company's history. In England in the 19th Century most pubs were "tied" houses, meaning that they were tied to a specific brewery. But since Guinness had no tied houses of its own in England, it could be a "guest" brew at the pubs of many different brewers as well as at the pubs that were not tied to any brewery. The result was wider distribution and brand awareness than could have been achieved through any wise strategic decision.
This would be a better book for the business reader if Yenne were a better business writer. He takes the firm's statement that they didn't pay attention to marketing and distribution until the middle of the Twentieth Century at face value. But the book describes a very different reality.
The book describes Guinness paying attention to distribution much earlier than other brewers or, indeed, other businesses. We see them paying attention to what we would call their brand as far back as the Eighteenth Century with an intensity that's more like a modern business.
In addition to the story of Guinness the company, there are wonderful bits of history here. As you read along you can't help but learn about the relationship between Ireland and England and about the impact of world events on commerce.
Want a picture of a different age? You'll find out that when World War I broke out, Guinness not only held the job of every many who went to war, they also paid that man a half salary while he was in service.
Want an idea of how the temporary can become permanent? You'll learn that England put in pub closing laws during World War I designed to get workers home early. But those laws remained unchanged until the dawn of the next century.
Want a sense of déjà vu? You'll read about how Guinness saw the developing market in the US as a place where rapacious businesses routinely produced shoddy goods and infringed on trademarks, much like what you hear Americans saying about the Chinese today.
Want an idea of how far-away events can affect a global business? When the US enacted Prohibition in 1920, the entire, up-till-then-growing US market disappeared along with a big chunk of Guinness' revenue.
There are things that could be better. Sometimes the author gets to running down lists of relatives and connections that remind me of all those "begets" in the Bible. When you hit one of these dry passages, skip it and move on. You won't miss anything important.
And the author likes to drop technical terms into the story without defining them or telling us why they're important. When discussing the building of a brewery railway, for example he mentions the purchase of a "0-4-0" locomotive. I doubt that many readers know what that is or know that it's a good choice for a tight space.
The bottom line, though, is that this is an enjoyable book, whether you read it because you're a beer lover and want to know about some of Guinness' technical innovations, or whether you're a business person learning lessons from a company that's been successful longer than most companies have been around, or whether you just like to see history through a different glass.