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Brewers Invest in Perfect St. Patrick's Day Pints

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- St. Patrick's Day success in the beer industry is measured in quantity, but it takes a substantial investment in quality to get that perfect holiday pint.

Brewers went into last St. Patrick's Day in no mood to celebrate after U.S. beer shipments fell 2.3% in 2009, according to Beer Marketer's Insights. Judging by Brewers Association figures for last year, brewers' luck -- Irish and otherwise -- didn't change much when the holiday arrived amid a 2.7% slump in first-half sales. That didn't stop Diageo's (DEO) Guinness from selling 3.5 million pints last March 17, an increase from 2009 and well above the 600,000 pints Guinness representatives say Americans drink every other day of the year.

Beers such as Samuel Adams and Guinness have extensive quality control systems in place. Consumers can send back Sam Adams that's past its freshness date for a full refund from brewers and distributors.

With all imported beer experiencing a 10% sales slump in 2009 and Diageo Guinness itself seeing a 10.3% decline that year, why did Guinness fare so well last St. Patrick's Day? Diageo Guinness USA Director of Quality Tim Cowlishaw says the credit belongs not to a Dublin brewery's worth of Irish heritage and association with all things St. Pat's, but with a legacy of quality control that pours a little bit of marketing into a whole pint full of nitpicking.

"The Diageo business celebrates big-time in the run-up to the holidays in December and we on the Diageo Guinness side see a huge increase in the setup of accounts to make sure they're looking as St. Patrick would like them or Arthur Guinness would like them," Cowlishaw says. "We see a substantial increase in the bar owners' request for support and help, and obviously we want to showcase our brand as well as possible."

That sweet display of Guinness' signature stout doesn't come cheap. In addition to Cowlishaw, Diageo-Guinness' U.S. operation employs four regional quality control coordinators, 100 salespeople steeped in the Guinness' multistep quality testing and more than 300 distributors throughout the U.S. who attempt to ensure that every pint of Guinness poured looks exactly like the black, foamy, ring-leaving pints the company idealizes and its sellers count on. Like a Smirnoff Ice or Twisted Tea sold in the summer, a Guinness sold on St. Patrick's day is making a first impression and trying to bring the consumer back for more

"We live or die by St. Patrick's Day with Guinness," says Mike Braccia, spokesman for Burke Distributing in Randolph, Mass., which handles Guinness distribution for 2,900 bars and other clients in Greater Boston and makes 15.5% of its annual Guinness sales on St. Patrick's Day. "That's why we strive to make it as perfect as we possibly can -- because you have one shot to make it."

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