“A pint of the black stuff” is all one need utter to the barkeep to get a pour of Ireland’s most famous contribution to the world economy. The beer famously known as Guinness seems to be the lifeblood running through the veins of most Irish. Every pub features elaborate Guinness taps and it is the most commonly ordered brew in Ireland, comprising approximately 25 percent of all beer sales.
Back alleys lay cluttered with stacks of empty Guinness kegs, awaiting their return to Dublin for a refill. Guinness billboard advertisements promote sentiments of nationalism, and who better to sponsor their professional soccer and rugby leagues? Whenever a foreign dignitary stops by for a visit, you can bet they will be treated to a pint, as happened when the Irish proudly hosted President Obama and the First Lady in 2009.
Arthur Guinness founded the Guinness brewery in 1759 when he executed a 9,000-year lease at a meager £45 ($66) per year for an unused brewery in Dublin. With a bargain like that one suspects Arthur permitted the owner of this land to taste-test a few pints of the prospective brew prior to the negotiations.
In the 1930s, Guinness was the seventh largest company in the world. Now approximately 1.8 billion pints of Guinness are consumed worldwide each year in over 100 countries. The United Kingdom is the number one consumer (approximately 1 million pints per day), followed by Nigeria (Africa), Ireland, Cameroon (Africa) and then the U.S.
Guinness has long had the reputation of being good for the heart, and recent studies substantiate the claims by showing it tends to slow down the deposition of bad cholesterol in arteries and contains healthy antioxidants. An early advertisement suggested “seven glasses, seven days of the week and seven beneficial reasons to drink Guinness (for strength, nerves, digestion, exhaustion, sleeplessness, tonic effects and the blood).”
Today blood donors and hospital patients recovering from surgery frequently indulge in a pint to speed recovery — though the tradition of a free pint of Guinness after blood donation was ended in 2010 to the disappointment of many who felt the “pint for a pint” was a fair trade.
Our host at one bed and breakfast taught us that it was common for pregnant women in Ireland to drink a half pint of Guinness each day. Guinness is high in Vitamin B and Iron, two essential nutrients for pregnant and nursing women, which corroborates this unsolicited medical advice. Our host did not follow this recommendation up with a disclaimer like I do now: Consult your doctor before exchanging the Iron supplements for a six-pack.
Some consider Guinness a “meal in a glass” despite the fact that it has fewer calories than most lighter beers (about 200 calories per pint). It is brewed with the traditional ingredients used in any beer — water, barley, malt extract, hops and brewer’s yeast. It is their barley roasting process that gives Guinness its dark color, which is actually a deep ruby, not black, as you will notice if you hold it up to the light. The water comes from the nearby Wicklow Mountains. The strains of yeast descend from those used when Arthur Guinness first began brewing beer.
Not only is the brewing process a revered tradition, pouring a pint of Guinness has a ceremonial nature to it. From start to finish the process is supposed to take 125 seconds to get the perfect pint. The glass is held at a 45-degree angle, filled three quarters full and then left to settle for a short period before being topped off. Done well, the pint should have a smooth foamy head about an inch deep. Supposedly a pint of Guinness tastes better in Ireland than anywhere else, but “scientific” studies suggest that might be due more to the natural ambiance of the pubs and psychological excitement of having a Guinness in Ireland than anything physical about the beer.
We planned a stop at the St. James Gate Brewery where Guinness is made. When asking a local how long it would take to hoof it to the brewery, he estimated 20 minutes or so, depending upon how “tirsty” you are. Unfortunately, his joke about being thirsty was lost on those in the group who, due to his Irish accent and failure to pronounce the “h,” thought he said touristy.
Though much celebrated, I must confess that Guinness is not my favorite Irish brew, and for every enthusiastic Guinness disciple there is someone who will gladly pass on a pint. Fortunately, Harp lager and Smithwicks red ale provide popular local alternatives. Bulmers, an alcoholic cider sold under the name Magners in the U.S., is always found on tap alongside these other Irish classics. If you dare pass on the local brews and select an American import, a move that is sure to blow your cover and expose you as a tourist among the locals (if they hadn’t already figured you out), you can expect to pay even more than you would for a Guinness.
The Irish enjoy their beer and whiskey, of that there is no doubt. The importance of Guinness to their identity and culture cannot be overstated. But just as important as the drink itself is the camaraderie that comes with it. Going to the pub for a pint is just as much an excuse to get out and socialize, catch up with the news, listen to music and dance, as it is an excuse for a drink, but that’s the topic for another week.
Slán go foil.
Greg Schieber is a Caledonia native and recent graduate of Drake University Law School in Des Moines, Iowa