It’s New Year’s Day in Dublin, the first day of my first visit to the Emerald Isle. With temperatures hovering a little above the freezing point and a stiff wind blowing out of the west, this is not the night for a leisurely walk by the Liffey. It’s not raining, but the streets are still damp and glistening from an earlier shower. The driving base and simple piano melody of the U2 song New Year’s Day is stuck on a loop in my head.
The mood of the city is mellow, with many people still recovering from New Year’s Eve revelry. As we walk down Grafton Street, Dublin’s upscale pedestrian shopping street, most of the businesses are closed, but that doesn’t stop a few buskers from plying their trade. A trio of guitar playing, twenty something men have drawn a respectable crowd and we stop to watch for a couple of songs. When they launch into the Goo Goo Dolls song Iris my wife smiles at me, while our daughter scowls upon being reminded that she shares the same name as the indie-pop staple from the dying days of the 20th century.
The visitor guide at the docklands apartment we’ve rented says that Kehoe’s pub serves the best pint of Guinness in the world. Understandably, I feel compelled to investigate this claim first hand. My wife and daughter, who have long since resigned themselves to the eccentricities of traveling with me, offer up little resistance when I suggest an after dinner excursion to Kehoe’s. When we reach our destination I’m not disappointed. The pub, which dates from the Victorian period, is full of dark wood and sports an extensive selection of whiskey. There’s a cozy snug at the front of the pub that is partitioned off from the rest of the bar, dating back to a bygone era when the upper class patrons preferred not to mingle with the working class punters.
I order two pints of Guinness, and then try to comport myself while I wait for the two-step theater of a Guinness pour play itself out. The bartender pours the beer at a 45-degree angle, filling the glass to roughly the three quarters mark. He then sets the pints aside and allows the cascade of tiny nitrogen bubbles to work their magic. After the surge of bubbles has settled down and two centimeters of creamy off-white head has developed, the bartender tops off our pints and hands them over.
I wouldn’t call the bar crowded, but there are no open seats so we head upstairs to a small, almost empty room on the second floor, warmed by a fireplace and partially lit by candles. I don’t know if this is the best pint of Guinness in the world, but it’s not far off. The temperature is just right, chilled but not too cold. The use of nitrogen to pressurize the beer gives an über creamy mouthfeel that may be Ireland’s most underrated contribution to world happiness. The use of roasted, unmalted barley gives the characteristic black color and a flavor that many describe as coffee-like, but when mixed with the creamy nitrogen bubbles I feel leans more toward mocha. Hop flavors are hard to find, but there’s just enough bitterness to balance out any malt sweetness. The dry, clean finish begs for another sip. Like all classic beers, it’s flavorful but exquisitely balanced.
Macro lagers aside, there are few countries in the world where a single style can match the popularity stout enjoys in Ireland, only the Czech’s love of pilsner comes to mind. While Pilsner Urquell holds a special place in the hearts of Czech beer drinkers, it’s grip on the domestic beer market can’t match Guinness’ dominance in Ireland. According to statistics published by the Irish Brewers Association stouts account for 33% of all beer sales in Ireland, while other types of ale combined for only 6% of sales (the remaining 61% goes to lagers). I couldn’t find figures on what fraction of stout sales can be attributed to Guinness, but it’s safe to say that it’s a large piece of the pie. The only major competitor seems to be Cork-based Murphy’s, which has been owned and operated by Heineken since 1983.
What better way to get the low down on Irish stout than a Guinness tour. I was deeply impressed with the tour of Pilsner Urquell I took this past fall, and I had hoped that a Guinness tour might be a similar experience. As it turns out the two tours are vastly different. To begin with you don’t tour the actual brewery, instead you visit the Guinness Storehouse—a seven story museum of beer located in a refurbished fermentation building within the historic St. James Gate brewing complex. Then you have the price of admission, which varies from €17.50 to €22.50 for an advance ticket, and goes as high as €25 for a walk-up ticket. The Pilsner Urquell tour costs about €8 by comparison. Finally, the tour is self-guided, which is not without an upside, but comes off as being a little impersonal.
Visiting the Guinness Storehouse is much like visiting a well-funded science museum—full of eye catching exhibits that explain things in simple terms but a little short on details for those seeking a deeper understanding. It’s said to be Ireland’s most popular tourist attraction and much of it is geared toward the casual tourist. For example, the walls of the brewing section of the exhibit are adorned with realistic looking (but presumably fake) hop bines, yet there’s no mention of what hop varieties are used in any of the Guinness beers. Some exhibits, like the waterfall backlit with blue LEDs or the 3D array of blue spheres meant to emulate the bubbles in a pint of Guinness, seem to exist only to make a good backdrop for a selfie. There’s a floor devoted to advertising, and another with a cafeteria and a café. Who am I to argue with success though, in 2014 the storehouse attracted 1.25 million visitors, which at €20 per head adds up to roughly €25 million in annual revenue.
If you are willing to wait in line you can get a lesson on how to pour a draught Guinness. If you have less patience you can head up to the top floor and enjoy the pint of Guinness while taking in views of the city through glass walls of a bar located on the 7th floor of the storehouse. When I visited on a gray, rainy Tuesday afternoon in January the bar was so packed that it was non-trivial to find a space to sit, let alone take in a panoramic view of the city. I cringe to think what it would be like in July. As you would expect the beer that comes at the end of the tour is an expertly poured pint of Guinness at its freshest; very tasty to be sure, but not necessarily better than the pint I had at Kehoe’s the night before.
That’s not to say that you don’t learn a few interesting facts along the way.
- Unlike most aspects of the process and recipe Guinness is very specific about the unmalted barley they roast in house. The barley is roasted at 232°C (450°F) in a process that takes 2.5 hours. Roast it at 235°C and it catches fire, while lower temperatures don’t bring out the requisite amount of flavor.
- I had always thought the water in Dublin was rather hard, and that influenced the development of Irish stouts, but apparently that’s not the case. Guinness gets its water from the nearby Wicklow Mountains, and they describe it as being “soft water with a low mineral content.”
- Guinness Draught Stout relies on hops strictly for bittering, there is no aroma hop addition and no dry hopping.
- Guinness uses the same house strain of yeast for all of their beers, including lagers. They simply change the fermentation temperature and the yeast adapts. The yeast is said to be descended from a strain used by Arthur Guinness back in the 18th century.
- I found it interesting to hear a brewer mention diacetyl in a seemingly positive light when talking about the flavors that come from the yeast in one of the many videos you can watch. Later in the tasting area you get to smell vapors carrying the scents of the different components of the beer, and there also the yeast vapor seemed to have a slight buttery tinge to it.
Going Beyond the Nitro
Prior to the 1950’s most Guinness was bottled, but as consumer preferences swung toward draught beer Guinness chose to innovate rather than follow the tried and true approach of force carbonating their kegs. In 1959 they were the first brewery to employ a mix of nitrogen (N2) and carbon dioxide (CO2) to pressurize their keg beer. Nitrogen is approximately 50 times less soluble in water than carbon dioxide. As a result, when released from its pressurized container more N2 molecules must leave the beer than a comparable beer infused with CO2. Hence, the vigorous surge of bubbles you get with a nitro pour. In its rush to escape nitrogen forms smaller bubbles than carbon dioxide, according to Guinness there are approximately 30 million bubbles in a proper pint of their stout.
The flaring shape of a Guinness pint glass, wide at the top and more slender at the bottom, allows for the bubbles in the center of the glass to escape more rapidly, so rapidly they set up currents that drag the bubbles near the walls of the glass downward. This is the physics behind what might be the ultimate visual spectacle in beer. Chemistry is also part of the story. A small fraction of the carbon dioxide molecules react with water to form carbonic acid (CO2 + H2O –> H2CO3). Anyone who has tasted a glass of carbonated mineral water knows it doesn’t taste like still water. The presence of carbon dioxide adds a sharp, mildly acidic bite to the water. In contrast, N2 molecules are highly unreactive and do little to change the pH or any other aspects of the beer chemistry. In this way pressurizing with nitrogen changes both the mouthfeel and flavor of the beer.
Guinness had been in business for 200 years before they developed the nitro pour system, so they must have been doing something right. Curious to see what pre-nitro Guinness was like I brought home a bottle of Guinness Original XX, a revival of a recipe from 1821. It’s instructive to strip away the nitro and see the essence of Guinness, naked so to speak. The head, while different, is still thick and creamy, and the handsome ruby highlights more beguiling. The flavor is more coffee-forward, and the bitterness much more apparent. The mouthfeel has changed from luscious and creamy to pretty average, It’s akin to the change you might see in the regal mane of a member of an 80s hair metal band, say Cinderella’s Tom Kiefer for illustrative purposes, if left out in the rain too long. The change in the overall experience is kind of like ordering a cup of black, filter coffee instead of a frothed cup of mocha.
Among the retro recipes that Guinness has revived in recent years I prefer the West Indies Porter. At 6% abv it’s almost 2% stronger than the more familiar Guinness Stout. It’s got a great chocolate forward flavor, with stiff enough hopping and just a kiss of acidity to make for a crisp, quaffable beer. In total Guinness makes 15-20 beers in addition to their draught stout, about half of them stouts or porters. The one that I saw almost everywhere in Ireland was a 5% abv lager hopped with Galaxy, Topaz, and Mosaic called Hop House 13 Lager. With hop aroma whose intensity is on par with a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, the combination of 21st century hops and a smooth, slightly sweet lager base, this could be a beer to watch. According to the Guinness website Hop House 13 is not available in the US.
O’Hara’s Pub in Kilkenny
As recently as 2012 there were only 15 craft breweries in the Republic of Ireland, serving a population roughly of 4.8 million people. Though that number has now risen to 60+ breweries producing 192,000 hectoliters per year, craft beer still only accounts for 3.4% of the market. To get a sense for this side of Irish beer I paid a visit to a Kilkenny pub owned by Carlow Brewing, which produces the popular line of O’Hara’s beers, one of the few Irish craft breweries that export to the US market.
We arrive at the pub, which goes by the moniker Brewery Corner, a little after 4 pm on a Wednesday. The exterior of the pub is painted kingfisher blue and nestled amongst a row of six pubs on Parliament Street in downtown Kilkenny. At a first glance the inside looks like a traditional Irish pub—dark wood interior, long bar, and an ample selection of whiskey lining the shelves behind the bar. A closer inspection reveals several amenities that would not be out of place at a craft brewery taproom in the US. There are 15 beers on tap, two-thirds of them O’Hara’s beers, all of them craft. An impressive selection of board games is stacked high on a set of shelves against a wall near the front of the pub. One of the four-top tables even has a monopoly board printed on it. The menu is made up entirely of pizza, no messing about with steak pies or fish and chips.
The beer choices include an Irish stout and an Irish red ale, both served on nitro taps, as well as a lager. These three styles seem to be almost compulsory for an Irish brewery. To set themselves apart from the big boys, nearly every Irish craft brewery makes a pale ale or IPA showcasing new world hops. When it comes to hop-forward beers O’Hara’s goes above and beyond offering up an IPA, a double IPA, a red IPA (Notorious), and an American pale ale (51st state). Aside from the lager, the beer styles on offer remind me of a US brew pub at the turn of the millennium—something light, something amber, something dark, something hoppy. There are no sours or mixed fermentation saisons, no beers infused with breakfast cereal or coffee, no revivals of forgotten historical beer styles.
I order two pizzas and a tasting flight to get a sense for the O’Hara’s product range. The IPAs at O’Hara’s are solid. The nitro red ale is extremely easy drinking, über creamy like a good Irish stout, but with caramel and nutty flavors in place of chocolate and coffee. I was interested to see how the stout compares to Guinness, but the keg blew before I got a chance to try it. However, the 6% abv Leann Follain Extra Stout is a real treat. It’s bursting with chocolate flavor, but balanced by earthy hops and a touch of bitterness at the finish. It’s a richer, fuller version of the Irish stout—bolder flavors, thicker mouthfeel. Yet it maintains a high degree of drinkability, even without a nitro pour. I think you can find bottled versions of this in the states, I’d encourage people to give it a try.
As a side note I did not see any cats in Kilkenny, maybe the old limerick has some truth to it.
Exploring the Emerald Isle
As much as I love a good Irish stout, Ireland has a lot more to offer than beer. Irish history is full of tragic stories and larger than life characters. In Dublin the General Post Office has an excellent exhibit about the 1916 Easter Rising which was a catalyst for finally gaining (partial) independence from Britain. Kilmainham Gaol is another spot well worth visiting for a sober dose of Irish history. The library at Trinity College in Dublin is an impressive place to visit. I would also recommend a tour of the historic Jameson’s Distillery while in Dublin, all three of us found it to be more informative and personal that visiting the Guinness Storehouse.
We spent two nights in Killarney in County Kerry which lies in the southeast corner of Ireland. The scenery and countryside in that part of the country is rugged and beautiful. Near Killarney you have three large lakes and Ireland’s oldest national park, we even saw snow capped mountains while we were there. I highly recommend a drive around the Iveragh Peninsula, a route called the Ring of Kerry. The cliffs that look out to Skellig Michael, where parts of the last Star Wars movie were filmed, offer up amazing views of the rugged westernmost coastline of Europe. If traveling counterclockwise around the Ring of Kerry, stick to the coastline once you leave Portmagee (on the Skellig Ring) and you’ll soon come to a small outpost where you can park your car and walk out to the Cliffs of Kerry. Not heavily advertised, but well worth the visit.
No visitor should leave Ireland without experiencing a slice of pub culture. Two-thirds of all beer sales in Ireland are on-premises (sold in the pubs and bars), the highest such rate in all of Europe. One of the best places to experience an Irish pub is Galway, where we spent our last night. The Latin Quarter, which lies between the River Corrib and Eyre Square, is mostly pedestrianized and full of centuries old pubs, many of which feature music, some of it traditional Irish folk music. There was enough shopping to make my wife happy, and a gourmet ice cream shop that made my daughter happy. We had an excellent dinner at the King’s Head, a pub that dates to the 17th century. Afterward we walked 50 meters to Taaffes Bar, a cozy Irish pub that features traditional Irish music twice nightly; then across the street to Tig Choili, where a group of musicians sat in a circle at the front of the pub and played traditional Irish music on acoustic instruments. With a talented busker on every block, even the streets are filled with music. I guess you could think of Galway as the Nashville of Ireland. I wish we would have had a bit more time to discover the charms of the city that is simultaneously a medieval city and a vibrant university town.
It’s interesting to compare the sessionable ales that are served on either side of the Irish Sea. From a distance English cask bitter and Irish stout don’t seem to have much in common. English bitters are minimally carbonated, pale amber to copper in color, and rely on fruity esters from the yeast to add complexity. Irish stouts are all about the bubbles, almost black in color, and fermented with a rather clean yeast that imparts little flavor that can be discerned above the malts. However, a deeper look reveals a surprising number of similarities. Both ales come in around 4% abv, with moderate bitterness (30-40 IBU), and a final gravity near 1.010. Both are designed to be quaffed from 20 oz imperial pints, and lose some of their charm when packaged.
As for craft beer in Ireland you’d have to say its lagging behind many places in Europe, including the UK. Surely some of that can attributed to the tied houses and powerful influence of Guinness. The pub culture and tastes of the drinking public, also play a role. However, craft beer’s share of the market has been rising steeply over the last few years, so it may only be a matter of time until you can get a barrel-aged gose, infused with Irish sea salt and shamrocks. It will be interesting to see if the unusual affinity for stouts, and the fact that hops don’t grow well in Ireland, will steer irish craft beer toward moderate strength malt-forward beers that have been largely left behind elsewhere.