Monday, December 21, 2009

“There is poetry in a pint of Guinness”

“Guinness tastes so much better in Ireland”, I had been told before my trip to Dublin. Intrigued as to how a mass produced brand could taste distinctly different in one country, I felt obligated to sample “a few pints” of the famous brew in its homeland. Prior to the trip, I had only tasted Guinness a couple of times, and was not a huge fan. I found the beer bitter and was worried that its heaviness would do damage to my dainty waistline (haha). I had also perceived it to be more of a ‘Dad drink’ so wasn’t inclined to order it at pubs (as weird as that sounds). Thus, I did not expect to enjoy the notorious perfect pint of Guinness that I would be served in Ireland.

The production of Guinness began in December of 1759 when Arthur Guinness bought a 9000 year lease on an old brewery (which had been on the market for 10 years!) on St. James Street in Dublin. The purchase was quite a risk, as the location was very popular for competitors. More than 60 small breweries had already established their business in Dublin due to its excellent water supply from the rivers Liffey, Dodder and Poddle. Through hard-work and perseverance, Guinness was able to surpass the competition. A dry stout, Guinness has just four ingredients: barley, hops, water, and yeast. Through trial and error, and pure craftsmanship, Arthur Guinness combined these ingredients to create what is now often referred to as the “perfect pint”.



By 1833, Guinness had become so popular that the St. James Gate Brewery was the largest in Ireland, and by the 1880s, it had become the largest brewery in the world. As a side note, I have a soft spot for the Guinness Brewery because I played on the St. James Gate (an Irish pub in Banff) basketball team when I lived in the wonderful little mountain town, although I never drank Guinness while I was there…

Today, 35 countries brew Guinness worldwide. However, each brewery must include the famous secret ingredient, a flavoured extract that is still brewed exclusively in Dublin and sent to international breweries so that the flavor of the perfect pint is consistent.

My first sip of Guinness in Dublin was at the Brazen Head, Ireland’s oldest pub. Dating back to 1198, The Brazen Head had been serving alcohol well before official licensing laws came into effect in 1635. A neat bit of trivia is that the pub is featured in the James Joyce novel, Ulysses: “You get a decent enough do at the Brazen Head”.

It was the perfect venue to sample the perfect pint: its “medievally, tavern-esque” dark, cozy atmosphere and cobble-stone courtyard create the Irish pub that I’d envisioned. All that was lacking was the music, which was to start in a couple of hours (we went for dinner, the traditional Irish pub food- stew, chowder, fish and chips, so were there a bit early).

When I put the ‘liquid gold’ (as Guinness is known due to its flawless flavor and profitability) to my lips, I was surprised at how smooth, creamy, and delicious it was. The thick creamy head is the result of the taps injecting nitrogen gas into the beer as it is being poured. With aftertastes that hinted flavours of rich coffee and dark chocolate, Guinness was not at all the bitter black stuff that I remembered. I am not sure if it was the beverage itself that I was enjoying, or merely the excitement of drinking Guinness in Dublin, but I was hooked. I literally began to crave the beverage’s distinct malty, mocha flavours. Thanks to Lululemon and stretchy denim I was able to put all of my waistline anxieties aside and continue to contribute to Ireland’s economic growth (in truth, at 198 kcal per pint, Guinness actually contains less calories than most non-light beers).


The next day, we visited the Guinness Storehouse, where you can go on a self-guided tour of the brewery, learn how to pour the perfect pint, and purchase Guinness merchandise. The tour was really interesting, well-organized, and informative. At the end of the tour, you receive a freshly brewed pint of Guinness. Actually, you have the option of learning how to pour the perfect pint, or enjoying a pint poured for you at the top-floor Gravity Bar, which is walled with windows and offers a 360 degree view of the city. It is worth going on the factory tour simply to see this fantastic view of Dublin. Pat and I opted to enjoy our pints on the top floor, while our friends earned certificates of mastery in Guinness pint pouring. Did you girls remember to update your résumés?



The slogan, “It’s alive inside” is used to advertise Guinness. Although this is not literally true, there is something magical about drinking Guinness, especially drinking Guinness at the St. James Gate in Dublin. The pint I had in the Guinness Storehouse was pure perfection. It tasted smoother, creamier, and more delicious than the pint I had at the Brazen Head (and at subsequent pubs…). In terms of its physical composition, I doubt that the beer poured at the St. James Gate is in actuality any different than the beer poured at any other pub in Dublin. However, the allure of drinking Guinness at the Guinness brewery definitely adds to the richness of the experience, and makes you feel like you are consuming an extra special recipe.


One sign that caught my eye in the Guinness Storehouse read “There is poetry in a pint of Guinness”. I thought a lot about what this means. I suppose I would define poetry in an English class as a “written expression of human emotion”. But another interpretation could be that, poetry is, essentially, life. Therefore, the poetry is not the pint of Guinness itself but the life experiences created by the pint: sampling Irish pub food with my brother and friends, discovering that musicians in Irish pubs seem to only play American covers and U2 (I guess I had expected the fiddle??), the feeling of panic when I looked in my wallet and realized I had spent more on a night at the pub than on my return flight from London to Dublin (alcohol is ridiculously expensive in Dublin- I literally spent 7 Euros on pints at some pubs), meeting other interesting travelers, and of course, the memory of tasting my first sip of Guinness in Dublin.

It is interesting to note that despite the love of Guinness that I developed while I was in Dublin, I haven’t had a drop of it since I got back a couple months ago. Perhaps this is because I subconsciously know that it just won’t taste as good as it did at the St. James Gate? Although I am sure that I will order the odd pint of Guinness every now and then, I doubt I will ever choose it regularly over other options that I would, of course, drink responsibly.

Since my perspective of Guinness consumption in Dublin came from a tourist’s point of view, I am interested in learning more about whether Guinness is actually the drink of preference for most Dubliners, or if that is simply a stereotype. I suppose the commercial success of Guinness suggests that people do, in fact, drink it quite often, but do Irish people link Guinness with part of their cultural identity? Or is its Irishness simply the brand image that Guinness promotes to the world?

I am already looking forward to going back to Ireland with my rugby team when we go on tour in April! Hopefully I’ll be able to learn more about Guinness and Irish culture through conversations with my opponents after games!

65 comments:

Justin said...

My dad was exactly he same way until he visited in Ireland and had a pint over here.

To answer your question, Guinness is truly the national drink and would be synonymous with Ireland and not just clever marketing, though the brand is certainly an icon.

Guinness was pretty damn popular before branding was ever invented and managed, though they certainly do a fantastic job of creating near religious fervor around the ritual of the pouring the perfect pint.

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