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10 Directors with Major Roles in Other Directors’ Films

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A movie director’s job usually takes place behind the camera, but sometimes, they get in front of the lens. Some directors, like Woody Allen, are involved in the majority of that process, and write, direct, and star in their own films. Others, like Alfred Hitchcock or John Landis, add playful little cameos—sometimes themselves, or sometimes other filmmakers who happened to be on set that day. But what happens when well-known movie directors don’t do any directing at all, and star in other directors’ films in major roles that are more than simple cameos? Here are a few examples.

1. Werner Herzog in Jack Reacher

The first director on the list is German weirdo-auteur Werner Herzog, responsible for films like Aguirre, the Wrath of God; Fitzcarraldo; and the documentary Grizzly Man. Herzog has done his fair share of acting over the years, playing a fictional version of himself in the mockumentary Incident at Loch Ness or the father in the equally weird auteur Harmony Korine’s 1999 film Julien Donkey-Boy, but his most recent acting stint as the villain in last year's Jack Reacher is his most devious role yet.

Herzog plays a shadowy and sadistic Siberian baddie called “The Zec” who has one ominously cloudy eye and, as explained by the character, is missing multiple fingers that he chewed off while in captivity to avoid gangrene from complications of frostbite. If that doesn’t win you over, the villain's ridiculous lines—delivered in Herzog’s iconic accent—definitely steal some scenes.

2. François Truffaut in Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Nouvelle Vague pioneer François Truffaut had helmed 15 films of his own—and starred in two—before he stepped into the role of Claude Lacombe, the scientist trying to get to the bottom of all the UFO activity in Steven Spielberg’s 1977 blockbuster Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Though he was the lead in his own directorial efforts The Wild Child and Day for Night, Truffaut had never acted in an American film, and had a tough time with his lines in English while filming. When he was to deliver the line “They belong here more than we,” his thick French accent confused Spielberg and costar Bob Balaban into thinking he said “They belong here Mozambique.” The two then had shirts made with the Mozambique line and distributed them to the crew as a prank on the 400 Blows director. His performance, however, was no joke; it would earn Truffaut a BAFTA nomination for best supporting actor.

3. Victor Sjöström in Wild Strawberries

Swedish director Victor Sjöström worked primarily in the silent era, making early cinema classics like The Phantom Carriage—with himself in the lead role—and The Wind—starring notable silent film star Lillian Gish—that influenced such directors as Stanley Kubrick and David Lean.

Despite his long and storied career, perhaps his best effort in front of the camera is as the aging college professor Isak Borg, who ponders the beauty of life and death while travelling through Sweden to receive an honorary degree in director Ingmar Bergman’s heartbreaking 1957 film Wild Strawberries. Though it wasn’t the first time the two worked together—Sjöström appeared as a good-natured orchestra conductor in Bergman’s little-seen 1949 film To Joy—Bergman sought to truly immortalize his mentor with his role as Borg. The two first met when the Swedish production company Svensk Filmindustri brought on the veteran to oversee the young Bergman’s 1946 debut film Crisis, and the two hit it off so well that Sjöström would remain a father figure to Bergman for the rest of his life.

4. John Cassavetes in Rosemary’s Baby

Cassavetes was revered as the father of American independent cinema for directing groundbreaking films like Shadows and Faces, but he was also a fine actor in his own right. He cut his teeth in smaller acting roles for other directors, including Don Siegel’s version of The Killers and Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen—which garnered him an Academy Award nom for best supporting actor—and would later feature in quite the explosive role in Brian DePalma’s The Fury (if you’ve seen the film, you’ll get the joke). But his leading man status was cleverly tested as Mia Farrow’s husband Guy in Roman Polanski’s 1968 creep-out film Rosemary’s Baby.

The character was originally meant for a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, all-American à la Robert Redford, but Polanski—who himself has acted in his own films, including Chinatown and The Tenant—intentionally cast against type with the shifty looking Cassavetes. The film ended up a rousing and terrifying success, but the two apparently never got along on set. Polanski questioned Cassavetes’ acting ability, saying, “He knows how to play himself best,” while Cassavetes slyly called into question Polanski’s merit with the retort, “You can’t dispute the fact that he’s an artist, but yet you have to say Rosemary’s Baby is not art.” 

5. John Huston in Chinatown

Six years after Rosemary’s Baby, Roman Polanski continued the practice of casting directors as actors in his films by giving the devious role of wealthy land baron Noah Cross to the legendary John Huston. Like the other directors on this list, Huston dabbled in bit parts in other films prior to Chinatown, including a role in Otto Preminger’s The Cardinal or as “The Lawgiver” in 1973’s Battle for the Planet of the Apes, but, in terms of his acting, the director of The African Queen is best known for this neo-noir classic.

Though he appears in only three scenes in the entire film, his unforgettable performance is the glue that holds the shocking mysteries of the film together. At the time of filming, star Jack Nicholson was in a relationship with Huston’s real life daughter Angelica, which must have given some added tension to the scene where Huston as Cross asks Nicholson as sleuth Jake Gittes “Are you sleeping with her?” in regards to his onscreen daughter Evelyn, played by Faye Dunaway.

6. Spike Jonze in Three Kings

Before he was twice nominated for Best Director for his films The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, director David O. Russell made the underrated 1999 satirical war film Three Kings. He recruited A-list talent like George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg and off-the-beaten-path stars like rapper Ice Cube for the film, but he rounded out the cast with an unorthodox choice—Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze. Since Being John Malkovich and Three Kings were both released in October of 1999, Jonze was primarily known at the time as the genius behind music videos like the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage,” Weezer’s “Buddy Holly,” Björk’s “It’s Oh So Quiet,” and more, but his role as the naive man-child Conrad Vig in Russell’s film added acting to his unique legacy. Jonze would go on to direct three more films—including Her, which will be released this year—and act in smaller parts in films like Bennett Miller’s Moneyball, but never in as major a role as in Three Kings.  

7. Orson Welles in The Third Man

The renowned director of Citizen Kane eventually went on to have a long and storied acting career—he even had a particularly memorable turn as the voice of the planet-sized robot Unicron in the 1986 animated film The Transformers: The Movie—but his most indelible appearance in another director’s film was as the enigmatic character Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s 1949 film The Third Man.

Much like John Huston’s Noah Cross, Welles’ character only appears in a few scenes in the entire film, yet his character is the driving force behind the overall plot. His most famous scene, where Harry Lime meets Joseph Cotten’s character Holly Martins on the Wiener Riesenrad in Vienna’s Prater amusement park, includes the famous “Swiss cuckoo clock speech” that was largely improvised by Welles: “In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” Unfortunately for Welles, cuckoo clocks are, in fact, from Germany.

8. Sydney Pollack in Eyes Wide Shut

Prior to Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Tootsie director Sydney Pollack’s feature acting credits included a rarely-seen 1962 war film called War Hunt and as the rational best friend of Woody Allen’s usual neurotic lead character in 1992’s Husbands and Wives. But the director's most haunting and complex character was the intimidating Dr. Victor Ziegler in Eyes Wide Shut, a role that was originally meant for Harvey Keitel until Pollack stepped in to replace him at Stanley Kubrick’s request.

Despite his friend Kubrick’s notorious reputation for demanding numerous takes when shooting ostensibly easy scenes, Pollack estimated that he would be able to complete his own scenes within one week. His first scene wrapped in mere hours but his second scene, which required him to simply walk across a room and answer a door, went on for two days of takes without satisfying Kubrick. When Pollack finally finished a take that was accepted by the director, Kubrick cryptically told him, “I wondered how much longer it would take you.”    

9. Quentin Tarantino in From Dusk till Dawn

In 1994, director Quentin Tarantino rewrote the book on American independent cinema with his modern classic, Pulp Fiction. Despite dabbling in acting in his own films before—he played Mr. Brown in his first feature, Reservoir Dogs, and was the frantic husband Jimmie in “The Bonnie Situation” chapter of Pulp Fiction—his first major role in another director’s film was in his friend Robert Rodriguez’s 1996 horror flick, From Dusk till Dawn, which Tarantino also wrote.

Tarantino and George Clooney starred as the Gecko Brothers, two crooks on the lam who seek refuge with their hostages in a strip club populated by vampires. The film was originally supposed to be his directorial follow up to Pulp Fiction, but Tarantino instead decided to focus on the screenplay and perfecting his acting chops for his role.

10. Fritz Lang in Contempt

Almost all of director Jean-Luc Godard’s movies are self-contained film schools, each playing with the ideas of what a movie itself can be. Godard was always eager to put his heroes in his films (American hard-boiled director Samuel Fuller had a brief cameo in Godard’s 1965 flick Pierrot le Fou, for example), but in his 1963 film Contempt, he decided to go bigger. Godard cast one of his idols, Austrian director Fritz Lang, who played a version of himself—a film director torn between adapting Homer’s The Odyssey from a small art film to an overblown studio epic.

Lang was the director of such masterpieces as Metropolis and M, and was allegedly the only person that the cantankerous Godard got along with on set. Actor Jack Palance, who played the pompous studio producer who hires a new screenwriter to rework Lang’s Odyssey adaptation, was so miserable working with Godard that he continually called his agent to get him out of his contract for the picture. But Lang, whom Godard worshipped, was made to feel right at home.  

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13 Fascinating Facts About Nina Simone
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Nina Simone, who would’ve celebrated her 85th birthday today, was known for using her musical platform to speak out. “I think women play a major part in opening the doors for better understanding around the world,” the “Strange Fruit” songstress once said. Though she chose to keep her personal life shrouded in secrecy, these facts grant VIP access into a life well-lived and the music that still lives on.

1. NINA SIMONE WAS HER STAGE NAME.

The singer was born as Eunice Waymon on February 21, 1933. But by age 21, the North Carolina native was going by a different name at her nightly Atlantic City gig: Nina Simone. She hoped that adopting a different name would keep her mother from finding out about her performances. “Nina” was her boyfriend’s nickname for her at the time. “Simone” was inspired by Simone Signoret, an actress that the singer admired.

2. SHE HAD HUMBLE BEGINNINGS.


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There's a reason that much of the singer's music had gospel-like sounds. Simone—the daughter of a Methodist minister and a handyman—was raised in the church and started playing the piano by ear at age 3. She got her start in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina, where she played gospel hymns and classical music at Old St. Luke’s CME, the church where her mother ministered. After Simone died on April 21, 2003, she was memorialized at the same sanctuary.

3. SHE WAS BOOK SMART...

Simone, who graduated valedictorian of her high school class, studied at the prestigious Julliard School of Music for a brief period of time before applying to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Unfortunately, Simone was denied admission. For years, she maintained that her race was the reason behind the rejection. But a Curtis faculty member, Vladimir Sokoloff, has gone on record to say that her skin color wasn’t a factor. “It had nothing to do with her…background,” he said in 1992. But Simone ended up getting the last laugh: Two days before her death, the school awarded her an honorary degree.

4. ... WITH DEGREES TO PROVE IT.

Simone—who preferred to be called “doctor Nina Simone”—was also awarded two other honorary degrees, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Malcolm X College.

5. HER CAREER WAS ROOTED IN ACTIVISM.

A photo of Nina Simone circa 1969

Gerrit de Bruin

At the age of 12, Simone refused to play at a church revival because her parents had to sit at the back of the hall. From then on, Simone used her art to take a stand. Many of her songs in the '60s, including “Mississippi Goddamn,” “Why (The King of Love Is Dead),” and “Young, Gifted and Black,” addressed the rampant racial injustices of that era.

Unfortunately, her activism wasn't always welcome. Her popularity diminished; venues didn’t invite her to perform, and radio stations didn’t play her songs. But she pressed on—even after the Civil Rights Movement. In 1997, Simone told Interview Magazine that she addressed her songs to the third world. In her own words: “I’m a real rebel with a cause.”

6. ONE OF HER MOST FAMOUS SONGS WAS BANNED.

Mississippi Goddam,” her 1964 anthem, only took her 20 minutes to an hour to write, according to legend—but it made an impact that still stands the test of time. When she wrote it, Simone had been fed up with the country’s racial unrest. Medger Evers, a Mississippi-born civil rights activist, was assassinated in his home state in 1963. That same year, the Ku Klux Klan bombed a Birmingham Baptist church and as a result, four young black girls were killed. Simone took to her notebook and piano to express her sentiments.

“Alabama's gotten me so upset/Tennessee made me lose my rest/And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam,” she sang.

Some say that the song was banned in Southern radio stations because “goddam” was in the title. But others argue that the subject matter is what caused the stations to return the records cracked in half.

7. SHE NEVER HAD A NUMBER ONE HIT.

Nina Simone released over 40 albums during her decades-spanning career including studio albums, live versions, and compilations, and scored 15 Grammy nominations. But her highest-charting (and her first) hit, “I Loves You, Porgy,” peaked at #2 on the U.S. R&B charts in 1959. Still, her music would go on to influence legendary singers like Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin.

8. SHE USED HER STYLE TO MAKE A STATEMENT.

Head wraps, bold jewelry, and floor-skimming sheaths were all part of Simone’s stylish rotation. In 1967, she wore the same black crochet fishnet jumpsuit with flesh-colored lining for the entire year. Not only did it give off the illusion of her being naked, but “I wanted people to remember me looking a certain way,” she said. “It made it easier for me.”

9. SHE HAD MANY HOMES.

New York City, Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands were all places that Simone called home. She died at her home in Southern France, and her ashes were scattered in several African countries.

10. SHE HAD A FAMOUS INNER CIRCLE.

During the late '60s, Simone and her second husband Andrew Stroud lived next to Malcolm X and his family in Mount Vernon, New York. He wasn't her only famous pal. Simone was very close with playwright Lorraine Hansberry. After Hansberry’s death, Simone penned “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” in her honor, a tribute to Hansberry's play of the same title. Simone even struck up a brief friendship with David Bowie in the mid-1970s, who called her every night for a month to offer his advice and support.

11. YOU CAN STILL VISIT SIMONE IN HER HOMETOWN.

Photo of Nina Simone
Amazing Nina Documentary Film, LLC, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

In 2010, an 8-foot sculpture of Eunice Waymon was erected in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina. Her likeness stands tall in Nina Simone Plaza, where she’s seated and playing an eternal song on a keyboard that floats in midair. Her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, gave sculptor Zenos Frudakis some of Simone’s ashes to weld into the sculpture’s bronze heart. "It's not something very often done, but I thought it was part of the idea of bringing her home," Frudakis said.

12. YOU'VE PROBABLY HEARD HER MUSIC IN RECENT HITS.

Rihanna sang a few verses of Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do” on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. He’s clearly a superfan: “Blood on the Leaves” and his duet with Jay Z, “New Day,” feature Simone samples as well, along with Lil’ Wayne’s “Dontgetit,” Common’s “Misunderstood” and a host of other tracks.

13. HER MUSIC IS STILL BEING PERFORMED.

Nina Revisited… A Tribute to Nina Simone was released along with the Netflix documentary in 2015. On the album, Lauryn Hill, Jazmine Sullivan, Usher, Alice Smith, and more paid tribute to the legend by performing covers of 16 of her most famous tracks.

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13 Secrets From the Guinness Archives
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Guinness has been a staple in Irish pubs for nearly 260 years. With so much history, it's no surprise that the Guinness Storehouse Archives—which are open to the public—are stuffed with intriguing artifacts that tell some pretty wild stories. Here are a few.

1. THE LEASE TO THE DUBLIN BREWERY WAS INTENDED TO LAST 9000 YEARS.

In 1759, founder Arthur Guinness signed a lease for a four-acre property at St. James’s Gate in Dublin. The lease required a down payment of £100, an annual rent of £45, and a term of 9000 years (not a typo). Such lengthy leases were relatively common back then: “At the time in Ireland, there was a lot of instability to do with land tenure,” explains Fergus Brady, Archives Manager at Guinness. Centuries earlier, the British had begun confiscating land from native Irish in an effort to build plantations, and extra-long leases were a means of avoiding this fate. As Brady explains, “You see these really long leases: 99-year or 999-year leases. It seemed to be a legal custom at the time that they used the number nine.”

2. ARTHUR GUINNESS WAS NOT AFRAID TO DEFEND HIS PROPERTY WITH A PICKAXE.

In 1775, the Dublin Corporation—that is, the city government—demanded that Arthur Guinness pay for the spring water flowing to his brewery. When Guinness argued that he was already paying for water rights through his 9000-year rental agreement, the Dublin Corporation sent a sheriff and a committee to his brewery to cut off the water supply. Guinness was livid. He seized a pickaxe and unleashed a torrent of obscenities so colorful that the Dublin Corporation’s goons eventually retreated.

3. GUINNESS ONCE DEPLOYED FIELD AGENTS TO CATCH COUNTERFEITERS.

Guinness Apology
Guinness Archive, Diageo Ireland

In the 19th century, there was no such thing as brand consistency. Guinness did not bottle its own beer; instead, it shipped the suds in wooden casks to publicans who supplied their own bottles and applied their own personalized labels. Occasionally, these publicans sold fake or adulterated Guinness. To prevent such sales, the company sent special agents called “travellers” into the field to collect beer samples, which it tested in a laboratory. “If a publican was found to be serving adulterated or counterfeit Guinness, they had to give a public apology in their local newspaper—and even the national newspapers,” archivist Jessica Handy says.

4. FOR 21 YEARS, THE COMPANY HIRED A GUY TO TRAVEL THE WORLD AND DRINK BEER.

In 1899, Guinness hired an American ex-brewer named Arthur T. Shand to be a “Guinness World Traveller.” It was arguably the coolest job in the world. For 21 years, Shand traveled the world taste-testing beer. According to Brady, “His job was to travel the world and taste Guinness, say whether it was good or bad, who our bottlers in the market were, who our major competition was, what kind of people were drinking our product.” Shand traveled to Australia and New Zealand, to Southeast Asia and Egypt. “He was sort of a Guinness sommelier,” Brady says.

5. THE COMPANY'S HARP LOGO CAUSED TROUBLE WITH THE IRISH GOVERNMENT.

The Celtic harp—based on the 14th century “Brian Boru Harp” preserved at Trinity College—became a trademarked Guinness logo in 1876. Forty-five years later, when Ireland gained independence from England, the Irish Free State decided to use the same Celtic harp as its official state emblem. This became awkward. Guinness owned the trademark, and the Irish government was forced to search for a workaround. You can find their solution on an Irish Euro coin. Look at the coin, and you’ll notice that the harp’s straight edge faces the right; meanwhile, the harp on a glass of Guinness shows the straight edge facing left [PDF].

6. GUINNESS REPORTEDLY SAVED LIVES ON THE BATTLEFIELD.

The old slogan “Guinness is good for you” sounds like a marketing gimmick, but it was born out of a genuine belief that the beer was, in fact, a restorative tonic. The health claim dates back to 1815, when an ailing cavalry officer wounded at the Battle of Waterloo reportedly credited Guinness for his recovery. For decades, the medical community widely claimed that the dark beer possessed real health benefits—and they weren’t necessarily wrong. “There was little safe drinking water at the time,” Handy says. “But with brewing, consumers knew they were getting a safe beverage.”

7. THE COMPANY CREATED A SPECIAL RECIPE FOR CONVALESCENTS.

A label for Guinness invalid stout
Guinness Archive, Diageo Ireland

From the 1880s to the 1920s, Guinness produced a special “Nourishing Export Stout”—a.k.a. “Invalid Stout”—that contained extra sugars, alcohol, and solids and came in cute one-third pint bottles. “It was very common practice for people to buy a couple bottles and keep them as a tonic, even if it was just a glass or half a glass,” Handy says. In fact, Guinness went as far as asking general practitioners for testimonials attesting to the beer’s medical benefits. According to Brady, “Many of them wrote back and said yes, we prescribe this for various ailments.” One doctor even claimed a pint was “as nourishing as a glass of milk.”

8. DOCTORS REGULARLY PRESCRIBED THE BEER TO NURSING MOTHERS.

From the 1880s to the 1930s, many physicians believed Guinness was an effective galactagogue—that is, a lactation aid. The company sent bottles to hospitals as well as wax cartons of yeast (which supposedly helped skin problems and migraines). Hundreds, possibly thousands, of doctors prescribed the beer for ailments such as influenza, insomnia, and anxiety, David Hughes writes in A Bottle of Guinness Please: The Colourful History of Guinness. According to Brady, the company was sending beer to hospitals as late as the 1970s.

9. THE COMPANY ONCE DROPPED 200,000 MESSAGES-IN-A-BOTTLE INTO THE OCEAN.

A Guinness message in a bottle
The message within every bottle dropped in the Atlantic Ocean in 1959.
Guinness Archive, Diageo Ireland

In 1954, Guinness dumped 50,000 messages-in-a-bottle in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. In 1959, they repeated the stunt again, with 38 ships dropping 150,000 bottles in the Atlantic. The first bottle was discovered in the Azores off Portugal just three months after the initial drop [PDF]. Since then, the bottles have turned up in California, New Zealand, and South Africa. Just last year, a bottle was discovered in Nova Scotia. (If you find one, you just might be offered a trip to the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin.)

10. THE PERSONNEL FILES IN THE GUINNESS ARCHIVES CONTAIN SOME DOOZIES.

The Guinness corporate archives are open to the public. According to Handy, “Some of the stories you get in there are amazing, because you get accident reports and you get crazy stories of people bouncing on bags of hops outside the brewery." This may sound less surprising considering that, back in the day, Guinness employees were given an allowance of two pints of beer every day [PDF].

11. A GUINNESS SCIENTIST MADE A STATISTICALLY SIGNIFICANT MARK IN THE FIELD OF STATISTICS.

If you’ve taken a statistics class, you might be familiar with the Student’s t-test or the t-statistic. (It’s a method of working with a small sample size when the standard deviation is unknown.) The t-test was first described by William S. Gosset, a brewer and statistician at Guinness who was attempting to analyze a small sample of malt extract. Gosset’s discovery not only helped Guinness create a more consistent-tasting beer, it would lay the bedrock for one of the most important concepts in statistics: statistical significance.

12. GUINNESS IS SO BIG IN AFRICA, IT LAUNCHED A SUCCESSFUL FEATURE-LENGTH FILM.

Guinness began exporting beer to Africa in 1827. In the 1960s, it opened a brewery in Nigeria—followed by Cameroon and Ghana. Today, there are reportedly more Guinness drinkers in Nigeria than there are in Ireland. “In Ireland, England, and the United States, everybody thinks that Guinness is synonymous with Ireland,” Brady says. “But in Nigeria, there’s a very very low conception of that.” The beer is such a cultural staple that a fictional character who advertised the product named Michael Power—a James Bond-like, crime-fighting journalist—became the star of a feature film in 2003 called Critical Assignment, which was a box office smash. (Of course, there’s some branding built into the script. As Brady explains, “There are definitely scenes where Michael Power is enjoying a pint of Guinness.”)

13. DISPENSING BEER WITH NITROGEN WAS ORIGINALLY CONSIDERED LAUGHABLE.

In the 1950s, Guinness scientist Michael Ash was tasked with solving the “draft problem.” At the time, dispensing a draft pint of Guinness was ridiculously complicated, and the company was losing market share to draft lagers in Britain that could be easily dispensed with CO2. “The stout was too lively to be dispensed with CO2 only,” Brady says. “Ash worked on the problem for four years, working long hours day or night, and became a bit of a recluse apparently. A lot of doubters at the brewery called the project ‘daft Guinness.’” But then Ash attempted dispensing the beer with plain air. It worked. The secret ingredient, Ash discovered, was nitrogen. The air we breathe is 78 percent nitrogen. Today, a Guinness draft contains 75 percent nitrogen. Not only did the discovery make dispensing the beer easier, it created a creamy mouthfeel that’s been the signature of Irish stouts since.

Full disclosure: Guinness paid for the author to attend an International Stout Day festival in 2017, which provided the opportunity to speak to their archivists.

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