Ireland is the stuff of poetry. There is life. There is love. And there is Guinness.
Guinness is more than a beer to Ireland. It is a cultural icon on par with the finest wines of Bordeaux or Burgandy. The Irish swear by it as a tonic, ascribe to it all sorts of powers and serve it with cult-like ritual.
And they are right.
I never really liked the Guinness I had in the United States. It seemed bitter, overly dark and rather flat. But my first sip at an Irish pub made me a convert.
A good pint is a wonder to behold. The bottom three quarters of the class is not black, but a deep, deep ruby. Tiny waves of bubbles course through it -- not simply rising, but dancing through it in winding streams. The pint is topped by a fine froth that puts quality whipped cream to shame. In the mouth, that foam has the texture of "crema," the delightful foam at the top of a real Italian expresso. And the first sip is not bitter, but a curious mixture of flavors ranging from sweet to nut.
It all seems rather magical.
But Paddy, Collin and Shannon at the Guinness factory set me straight. It's science -- and a little magic.
The Guinesss Brewery is one of the top tourist destinations in Dublin. The actual beer making goes on in a modern, stainless steel plant next door, but the old collection of oak barrels, copper pots and great pipes has become a visitor center and convention facility. It explains the worldwide appeal of Guinness, the advertising prowess it has developed and the purity of the ingredients.
It also explains some of the Irish cult of Guinness. The company at one time provided 30% of the jobs in Dublin. It was the first to provide hospitalization, pension and paid holidays to its workers. And its pay averaged 10% above similar wages in Ireland. It was also the most noted export of Ireland and still ranks in the top tier. While there are a number of outlying plants around the world, Guiness for the eastern U.S. is stilled brewed in Dublin.
I couldn't quite understand it. If it is the same beer, why didn't I like it cold on tap in the U.S.? The tour offered precious little on why the beer was so different, so I asked a couple of the employees. Paddy grabbed the "talking sheets" given to employees and went off to photocopy them for me. When he returned, young Collin proudly explained how he wrote part of the talking sheet and waxed poetic about the quality of a good pint served not ice cold, but at a proper 6-degrees celsius. And then he handed us off to Shannon.
A masters degree student in language translation, Shannon held court at the "instruction bar." She gave Cecile and I small glasses of freshly poured stout and then made us wait the requisite two full minutes before drinking. Guiness is properly served in a "two pull pour." The first two thirds of the glass is filled and then the beer sits for two minutes. Then it is topped off with a flourish that raises the head.
Advertising hype? Not really. In the old days, Guinness was drawn from two barrels -- one flat and one bubbly. It was a trick to combine them to get a proper head. Now Guinness is injected with nitrogen as it is pumped (unlike the harsher carbon dioxide that puts the foam in U.S. lager). The nitrogen bubbles are small and produce a creamlike head. But they take time to gather and add their flavor to the brew. Hence the two-pull pour.
Drinking a pint is like sipping a fine wine. It takes time, patience and preparation.
And like a wine steward, Shannon also instructed us in the art of "retro-nasal breathing" that enhances any beer or wine. We sucked in a breath, took a sip, swirled the beer in our mouths and then exhaled as we swallowed.
The Guinness ads have a most appropriate term for the the resulting explosion of flavor.