WineInk: The Gift of Guinness

Yes, it tastes different in Dublin.

Kelly J. Hayes
The city of Dublin is spread out below the Gravity Bar atop the Guinness Storehouse
Courtesy photo

Though this is a wine column, I have occasionally taken liberties in this space to write of other alcoholic libations that have proven to be, in some way, inspiring.

There have been the odd rum (Goslings) and whisky (Talisker and Sweeten’s Cove) stories, but I don’t think that a WineInk has ever been fully devoted to a story about beer. Yes, I did a quick run through the archives. And that’s a bit odd because I drink my fair share — OK, more than my fair share — of craft beers. After all, we live in what is arguably the finest beer state in the country. A good title to have, by the way.

But this week, a series of flight cancellations thwarted my attempted return home to Aspen following the Notre Dame-Navy football game and fortuitously left me with a couple of free hours in Dublin, Ireland, of all places. The circumstance provided an opportunity to tour the Guinness Storehouse in a city where the beer really does flow like wine.

While Detroit is known for Ford, Cupertino for Apple, and Bordeaux for Château Margaux, perhaps no other major city on earth is as closely linked with a signature brand as Dublin is with Guinness. The two just go together. Since the late 1700s, the brewer has been a global force, producing the famed, dark stout beer, and over the last 260-plus years, it has become one of the most recognizable products on earth.

The display of a barrel room at the Guinness Storehouse.
Courtesy photo

The best place in Dublin to learn the story of the brand is at the Guinness Storehouse at the St. James Gate Brewery in the heart of Dublin. I am generally a bit skeptical of corporate tourist destinations, but the lure of the perfect pull of a perfect pint prompted me to take the mile walk from my hotel to the fabled brewery. And I was glad I did.

The storehouse is a museum, gift shop, historic brewery, and bar spread out over seven stories. Surrounded by stone walls, there is a palpable sense of history as one approaches the wooden door at the entrance to an attraction that has hosted over 24 million visitors (including  Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip, bless their departed souls) since it began welcoming guests in 2000. Keep in mind: The population of Ireland is around five million.

The first thing that struck me — besides the astounding number of T-shirts, hats glasses, etc. bearing the Guinness moniker at the always crowded gift shop that dominates the first floor — was the obvious respect that the company has for the ingredients that are used in producing the dark elixir with the foamy head.

Each of the four ingredients in the beer – water, roasted barley, malted hops, and yeast – are exalted in displays that show how each is selected and used in the production of the product. Irish barley, over 100,000 tons a year, are used, as are fragrant hops, which help to preserve the beer for long journeys to the British Colonies by sea, a dose of a special yeast that is used for every batch of stout, and pure, fresh water from the Wicklow Mountains. (Not the River Liffey, which flows through the city center of Dublin and is often erroneously credited as the source.) There is a barrel room display in the brewery, as well, that shows off the work of the coopers in constructing the wooden vessels in which the stout beer was transported throughout the world.

A musical interlude in a Dublin pub is fueled by Guinness.
Courtesy photo

This attention to detail, the source of ingredients, and the production techniques struck me as being very familiar to those who love wine. While there is no vintage variation (The goal of the brewery is to produce the same taste in each glass), there is a passion for creating a perfect product every time. To this end, each batch of beer is tasted at 10:00 a.m. each morning by Guinness’ expert tasters.

There are so many stories and iconic symbols that are associated with the brand, which all began with the birth of Arthur Guinness in County Kildare in 1725. After learning the craft of brewing, he came to Dublin and signed a legendary 9,000-year lease on a run-down brewery on New Year’s Eve of 1759, which called for payment of £45 per annum. The lease is no longer paid as the four-acre plot has since been purchased and expanded. The current storehouse complex is housed in a brewery building that was constructed in 1902 on the site.   

Another amazing factoid was that Guinness’ wife, the former Oliva Whitmore, had 21 children, 10 of whom survived, and many continued the family business legacy and philanthropic interests. It is said that she spent nearly 16 years of her life pregnant. While this had little to do with beer, it is one of those things that one does not forget.

A highlight of the self-guided tour of the seven floors of the storehouse is a section devoted to the marketing and advertising that has been a staple of the Guinness story. There have been great advertising slogans throughout the history of the brand, including “Guinness is Good for You” promoting the supposed health benefits of the beer, and “Good things come to those who wait” referencing the time it takes to pour a perfect pint of the Guinness Draught. A theater is devoted to showing the impactful television and print ads that have helped make the brand such a success throughout the world.

Just how successful is Guinness? It is said that the brand, which is today owned by Diageo, sells over 10 million pints per day, totaling 1.5 billion pints per year. Enough to make Guinness Draught one of the top ten selling beers on a very thirsty planet.

So why is the beer so popular? One can credit marketing, history, and legacy. But the real reasons are that it tastes good and is an affordable luxury. The dark reddish beer (Hold it up to the light, and you’ll see that it is, contrary to popular lore, actually red) comes in at just over 4.2% alcohol by volume, making it a perfect session beer. That is, one that you sip slowly for a while and have more than one. Brilliant, right?  

There is caramelly sweetness from the malt that works with a hoppy tanginess in the taste profile and hints of coffee and chocolate on the palate. All good things. But it is the texture — a smooth, rich, supple mouthfeel — that I believe separates Guinness Draught from other brews.

And, one can’t overlook the traditions that are tied to Guinness. As I finished my tour on the top of the storehouse in the glass-encased Gravity Bar, the highest bar in Ireland at seven stories, I watched as a server took the traditional route to pour my beer. With the glass tilted at a 45-degree angle, he pulled the handle of the tap back and filled the glass to 80% then let it sit for 119.5 seconds. Not 119 or 120, but the prescribed 119.5. He then pushed the tap forward, releasing the nitrogen-infused bubbles that topped off my glass with foam.

Iconic Irish guide Mick Dunne smiles over a pair of pints
Courtesy photo

I had learned from my Irish friend Mick Dunne that the way to drink a Guinness is to take a heavy first gulp to “split the G”. In other words, drink enough in that first pull, so that the level of the beer “splits the G” in Guinness on the front of the pint glass in half. Then sip the rest of the beer at your leisure.

And yes, the Guinness draft does taste different when poured and consumed at the traditional home of the elixir. There is a smoother, creamier texture. The bitterness of the hops contrasts ever so delicately with the sweetness of the barley. And the finish seems to linger longer. The reasons for this are elusive. Some say it is just fresher. Others claim the waters of the nearby Wicklow Mountains create the difference. And then there are those locals who just nod and say “You’re in Dublin; it tastes like home.”

I prefer the latter as the reason.

A musical interlude in a Dublin pub is fueled by Guinness.
Courtesy photo
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WineInk: The Gift of Guinness

Though this is a wine column, I have occasionally taken liberties in this space to write of other alcoholic libations that have proven to be, in some way, inspiring.

See more