The Journal of Food Science is set to publish an article testing the theory that Guinness tastes better in Ireland. The article concludes that Guinness in Ireland is better. Now, having gone over the entire article, I can say that it does seem a little bit tongue in cheek (is this for the April 1st issue?). And it does not take much effort to carve a few gigantic holes in the methodology of the study (the authors noted having consumed an average of 1.8 drinks prior to testing their Guinness, for example). And of course the whole thing is completely subjective and the tasters were not drinking in lab conditions nor are they professional tasters.
But if I went into any more detail about that, you’d all be tuning out. So let’s get to the point. Guinness isn’t really any better in Ireland than anywhere else. It’s pasteurized, first of all, so there isn’t much variability in the liquid itself. There are, however, establishments that have Guinness that is generally better than other establishments. We spent a month in Ireland, and while there are some wonderful microbrews there, distribution of microbrews is a bit lacking so we drank a lot of Guinness. What we found was this – Guinness doesn’t change much. There are stacks of pubs in Dublin, and everybody has an opinion as to which of these serves the best. None of them were any different than any other.
We did find, however, three pubs with superior Guinness last year. I mean noticeably superior, enough that a veteran beer geek who’d been drinking multiple Guinnesses a day for a period of around a month would notice the difference. The first was at Dowling’s Bar in Cashel. I don’t even remember the name, but it was pretty special. The other was in Tom King’s in Clifden, at the end of the gorgeous Connemara Peninsula.
When discussing this pub later on that night, the locals admitted that it was known as a “Guinness pub”. That is to say, the people there drink Guinness above all other beers and the landlord keeps Guinness better. Now here’s the thing. Guinness has been sold internationally for centuries. For most of that time, the beer came in barrels. It was alive. There was undoubtedly a difference between Guinness in Dublin and Guinness elsewhere. Bottled Guinness was bottle-conditioned as late as the mid-90s in Ireland, much later than anywhere else. But today, there’s only so much a place can do to make Guinness better or worse.
Most of it comes to handling. The Guinness is fresh, of course, in Ireland. They sell a lot of it. It does turn over quickly. But that’s the case for almost all the pubs we went to. Why were these two better? Were they cooler? Goodness no. The pub in Dingle that doubled as a hardware shop was the cooler. And we spent New Year’s Eve in Dublin. And we went to St. James’ Gate. So no, atmosphere wise, neither of these pubs was anything special. The beer was just better. What could do it?
It’s not turnover – everyone turns it over quickly in Ireland. It could be the draught lines. That always makes a difference. How about temperature? The beer would be more expressive. Could be – but I’ve never known Guinness to benefit from being warm. A confluence of factors might explain it, but at least the pub in Clifden had a reputation among the locals as being something special with the Guinness. For what that’s worth. And it is a fact that Guinness has an army of sales/QC people in Ireland to ensure the product is stored and poured according to spec – something that is unlikely to be the case elsewhere.
But as far as I can tell from extensive tasting, the Guinness in Ireland wasn’t any better than it is anywhere else (at least among pubs that actually move the stuff). It wasn’t any better at the brewery, and we had it at four different pubs there – we don’t joke around with this stuff. In our experience, the entire thing is a myth. There are a lot of myths in the world of beer. Many of them were rooted in the truth once, too, as this one most assuredly was. But today, it’s just not so. Guinness is brutally consistent, unless it has been mishandled. But that’s nothing to do with the beer – it’s like saying X food is better at Y location because the food handling standards of that country are higher.
Incidentally, the pub with the best Guinness last year? Not in Ireland. Try the noted Guinness hotbed of Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, at the sexy freewayside pub of the Guinness Anchor Berhad Brewery. They don’t have high turnover there because the pub isn’t really open to the public. And the atmosphere – dude I was bitter when I was there. But yeah, whatever mojo it takes to pour a superior Guinness, some guys in Malaysia beat all of Ireland, at least on that day.
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