I am writing a chapter on Tory Island off the coast of County Donegal in Ireland for my next book "A Dozen Random Islands." The following story is the introduction to that chapter. It tells the funny tale about my almost instantaneous education into the proper way to drink a proper pint of Guinness in a proper Irish pub. As the story reveals I dont make it to Tory Island on the original time frame I had set for the trip and my tardiness can only be blamed on Arthur Guinness and his wonderful libation that has been brewed in St. James Gate, Dublin for more than 250 years. Thanks Art!
My first lesson in the proper consumption of beer in Ireland was provided by Allen, a bearded and burly redhead who seemed to be the only person working at the Cavern Pub in Letterkenny. I had stopped there to break up the trip as I passed from Dublin to the coast of County Donegal and excitement overtook me as I walked to the front door of the pub. For as long as I could recollect I have heard stories about the Irish and their ability to drink copious volumes of beer and almost all of that beer seemed to be consumed in Irish pubs. The Cavern Pub, not far off the main road passing through Letterkenny, looked at least from the outside like the quintessential pub in the quintessential Irish small town and I decided on viewing it the first time that the Cavern was where I would lose my Irish beer drinking virginity.
Although my arrival was in early afternoon I was the only person other than Allen in the pub. He was wiping down the bar with a rag that looked as if it had survived the great potato famine of the late 1840s. Perhaps it was not quite that old but at first glance it certainly had not seen the inside of a washing machine in several weeks and maybe more.
“I’ll have a pint of Caffrey’s Irish Ale, please,” I said with great authority when Allen asked me what he could get for me. I had fallen in love with Caffrey’s Irish ale several years earlier when a friend of mine and I tested it in a suburban Washington DC bar over dinner one night. Its sorted history of brewing was one of the things I liked about Caffrey’s. The other thing I liked was its taste and its texture. I used to describe it to people as being like drinking alcohol-soaked silk. I cannot think of any better way to describe it.
As Allen absorbed my request for a Caffrey’s his head spun around almost like the little girl in the movie The Exorcist. His eyes widened and his nostrils flared open as he cleared his throat and then bellowed (not said, bellowed) “This is IRELAND. We drink GUINNESS here!” I was almost prepared for him to go into cardiac arrest.
I had tasted Guinness only once before and it produced one of my least favorite memories. A bar in Key West, Florida called Turtle Kraals had a contest in 1992 called “Drink Your Way Around the World.” Something like 42 different kinds of international beer was available in that bar and if you drank one bottle of each beer you received a t-shirt that read “I Drank My Way Around the World at Turtle Kraals in Key West, Florida.” Participants carried a small card with them that contained the name of each of the 42 beers and as each new beer was consumed the name of the beer was punched out by a bartender. It was a long and laborious process but from it I learned about beers such as Stella Artois and San Miguel that I had never tasted previously. Each trip to Turtle Kraals I would have two new beers and by the end of my time in the Keys, just before my return to Nebraska, I was two beers short of having drunk my way around the world.
One of the missing beers was Tiger from Singapore and its rich bold flavor made swallowing it a pleasure. The other missing beer was Guinness and it came in a cold bottle. As the bartender opened the bottle I heard a distinct hiss come from inside as all sorts of gases were released. Handing it to me I saw globs of yeast floating around in the liquid reminiscent of a “floater” that passes through your field of view in your eye on occasion. Placing the bottle to my lips I detected a distinctive scent unlike any other I had experienced while drinking beer and as the first drops of Guinness touched my lips I wanted to throw the bottle away and forego my chance for that coveted ticket. It was, in a word, awful. However I really wanted that t-shirt and I fought my way through the bottle. As the bartender handed me my coveted shirt I told myself that under no circumstances would I ever drink another Guinness. It didn’t matter if I was dying from thirst I would rather die than drink that concoction again.
Allen, the bartender at the Cavern Inn in Letterkenny, Ireland, caused me to view things a tad differently. It was quickly obvious to me that I had probably insulted not only him but the entirety of the Republic of Ireland when I asked for a beer other than the coveted Guinness. After all, to the average tourist, what other than the Blarney Stone is more Irish than a pint of Guinness? And where better to drink one than in Ireland where its brewed? Wikipedia has this to say about the most famous of Irish ales:
Guinness is a popular Irish dry stout that originated in the brewery of Arthur Guinness (1725–1803) at St. James’ Gate, Dublin. Guinness is one of the most successful beer brands worldwide. It is brewed in almost 60 countries and is available in over 100. Annual sales total 850 million liters….or 1.8 billion US pints.
A feature of the product is the burnt flavor that is derived from roasted unmalted barley, although this is a relatively modern development, not becoming part of the grist until the mid-20th century. For many years a portion of aged brew was blended with freshly brewed beer to give a sharp lactic flavor. Although the Guinness palate still features a characteristic "tang", the company has refused to confirm whether this type of blending still occurs. The draught beer’s thick, creamy head comes from mixing the beer with nitrogen when poured. It is popular with Irish people both in Ireland and abroad, and, in spite of a decline in consumption since 2001, is still the best-selling alcoholic drink in Ireland where Guinness & Co. makes almost €2 billion annually.
Having nearly created an international incident less than six hours after arriving in Ireland I quickly determined that my wisest choice of action was to have a pint of Guinness and have it sooner rather than later. Allen who at about 30 years old was nearly half my age and at 6 feet 5 inches was about eight inches taller than me (not to mention in much better shape) could easily throw me through the pub’s walls if I annoyed him again. Discretion being the better part of valor I swallowed my pride and said, “Alright then, Allen, I’ll have a pint of Guinness. But before I drink it I have to tell you a story about why I don’t like it.” I then recounted the experience with a bottle of Guinness in Florida with its bad smell and the floating yeast and the altogether forgettable memory it left in my mind.
“Ah, you silly bastard,” Allen exclaimed when I told him the story. “Didn’t anyone tell you that you never – and I mean never – drink Guinness from a bottle? Bottled Guinness is for pussies, wankers, and sheep shaggers. Real Irishmen only drink Guinness on draught!”
As he pulled off a proper pint of Guinness for me (and yes there is a correct way and a wrong way to pour Guinness) Allen turned to me, smiled, and said, “Well, you silly bastard. Since you are a Guinness virgin this first pint is on me.” He then added, “And I guarantee you that this will not be your last pint of Guinness.”
Allen’s proclamation turned out to be prophetic because it wasn’t the last Guinness I ever drank. That day, that week, that month or that year. One taste of Guinness draught and I was hooked. I had thought that Caffrey’s Irish Ale was like silk but that was before I tasted a draught Guinness for the first time. It went down smooth. It went down easily. It went down often and as I saw the bottom of the pint glass rise up to meet me it went down quickly so I could have the pint refilled and not miss out on one scintilla of the wonderful flavor of my newest most favorite beer.
As I slowly made my way through the second pint Allen, now much less uptight, began to talk with me like I was one of the locals. He had in his pub at least eight beers and ales other than Guinness. Each was Irish or Scottish and as we discussed them Allen asked if I’d like to taste one. Switching from Guinness to Bass he told me the story of how it was brewed and how it tasted like it tasted and why that was. A similar experience in England a few years ago provided me with my first insight into why British beers are so much more tasty than anything produced in the United States. As I tasted my way through the other’s on tap in the Cavern Pub it was readily apparent to me that none of them came close to Guinness in flavor and certainly none of them had anything at all like the storied history of Arthur Guinness’s libation.