The remarkable story of the Guinness pioneer who settled in Powys

Thursday 2nd June 2016 7:24 am
Michael Ash pictured in the Baskerville Arms

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THE man responsible for putting the famous head on a pint of draught Guinness has been remembered.

Michael Ash, who lived in Painscastle, was the maths genius behind the brewery’s world-famous Easy Pour system which enabled the Irish stout to be easily sold on draught in pubs and bars across the world.

The secret to maintaining the head was adding nitrogen and Michael pioneered the process in the 1950s but until recently his pivotal role in helping propel the brand to become one of the most famous drinks in the world had gone largely unrecognised.

Michael celebrated his 88th birthday last December with a pint of the renowned black stout with the creamy white head at the Baskerville Arms in Clyro - as the company filmed him for a commercial.

Sadly six months on Michael’s friends and family, including his three children and two step-daughters, gathered at the country pub following his funeral at the nearby St Michael and All Angels Church on Monday, May 23.

Daughter Lucy said her father’s discovery of how to inject nitrogen into a pint of draught Guinness had been re-told last year due to the popularity in the USA of the ’nitro-beer’ category he had created.

At the end of March, just a month before Michael’s death on April 30, he had also been honoured by Guinness at its St James’ Brewery in Dublin.

The firm had launched a Guinness Nitro IPA in America last year prompting new interest in how during the 1950s mathematician Michael became the first non brewer to be employed by Guinness and was tasked with making the tipple easily available on draft.

"They were making a commercial for a beer called Nitro IPA and used an image of my father. I think they thought he was dead or had not really thought about it," said Lucy.

"They realised they should find out and also they needed permission to use the image so they got in touch with the Guinness pension office and were amazed to find out he was still alive.

"They were even more amazed at how clearly he told the story and what an extraordinary story it was and they wanted to come and film him.

"They filmed him on his 88th birthday last year, at the Baskerville Arms. He also went to Dublin in March and he was described as a Guinness hero."

In the 1950s Guinness was popular on draft in Ireland but the system was slow and complicated, with the drink stored in two separate kegs, and required a skilled barman to pour a pint.

Michael devised a special keg, known as the ’Ash Can’, with one chamber full of beer and the other pressured gases including nitrogen. Using nitrogen allowed the beer to be put under high pressure without making it fizz.

Instead tiny bubbles are formed which couldn’t break the surface tension of the beer like C02 did, so they remained suspended in the pint, helping to form the surge and settle pour which allows Guinness to maintain a controlled, creamy head that lasts the whole pint.

Michael also decided the standard 3/8" head in a half pint glass.

It had taken Michael four years to crack the secret of adding nitrogen and his ’project draught’ became known as ’project daft’ by pessimists within the brewery.

But draught Guinness launched in 1959 - the year the company celebrated its bicentenary.

"Guinness was big in bottles but not on draught," said Lucy.

"Pubs in Ireland served it on draft but you would have to wait half an hour for it to pour, which people just wouldn’t do in the UK.

"My father was the first non brewer Guinness had employed and he was a mathematician.

"In those days Guinness only used to recruit people from Oxbridge and you would have to have a first and a blue.

"My father had a first from Trinity College, Cambridge and an equivalent blue in squash. He already had a first from London University which he got when he was 18."

Artist Lucy has also made her own film about her father and said she had asked him for the equation behind his discovery.

"I had wanted to put an equation in the film but he told me, ’There wasn’t an equation, just a beautiful cloud’.

"My father thought Guinness was a wonderful drink and I think it is absolutely the best drink in the world, although I may be biased."

Lucy said her father had moved to Hereford around 25 years ago and settled in Painscastle more than 10 years ago.

"He was very happy there. He loved the countryside and he loved books. He was an academic and being near Hay was perfect for him. He was always around Hay."

Percy Haynes, the general manager of the Baskerville Arms, said he had been unaware of Michael’s role in the development of Guinness until the commercial was filmed at the pub last year.

"Guinness made the short film with him and interviewed him in here about how he came up with the idea of mixing nitrogen to make the Guinness we know today.

"I had met him a few times and wasn’t actually aware of his invention until the filming. He had never mentioned it," said the barman who previously ran the Radnor Arms in Llowes where he also remembered Michael drinking.

He said regulars had also been asking about funeral details since learning of Michael’s death.

"A few people were quite surprised to learn he was the guy who came up with the idea of draught Guinness. He hadn’t been shouting it around.

"Before that Guinness was only by the bottle. It is definitely the most famous stout about. We sell a lot of Guinness and I will definitely be thinking a bit more of Michael the next time I pour a Guinness and how it is all down to him and without him coming up with that idea we wouldn’t be doing it that way at all."

To see the film Guinness made with Michael watch the link below

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