The Irish Love for Beer

Ireland has one of the highest beer consumption rates in the world. The unique thing about Irish beer habits is that the most popular type of beer is stout, whereas all other European markets prefer lagers or ales. The most famous stout, of course, is Guinness.

Guinness

If you stop at a pub in Ireland and ask for a pint, the bartender will invariably bring you a Guinness. This unspoken understanding demonstrates the centrality of Guinness in Irish pub culture. Guinness stout is not only the national drink, it is also one of Ireland's leading exports; in recent years Guinness has sold close to 2 billion pints of stout per year in more than 150 different countries.

Arthur Guinness started the first Guinness brewery in 1759 with the help of a £100 inheritance from his godfather, the archbishop of Cashel. A man with vision, Guinness took out a 9,000-year lease on a run-down brewery on St. James Street in Dublin, right next to the Liffey River. This location was crucial, because it ensured a ready supply of pure Irish spring water.

Guinness was a big fan of porter, as stout was called then, and he dedicated his new brewery to producing it. After some experimentation he found a taste that people loved, and the business has been growing ever since.

Like all beers, Guinness is made from barley, hops, yeast, and water (originally from the St. James wells in County Kildare). Guinness's distinctive flavor and dark color come from the practice of roasting the hops before brewing them. The beer isn't black, as many people think, but actually a deep ruby color — you can see the true color by holding your pint up to the light.

Guinness has given the world more than stout; it also produces the Guinness Book of Records. Guinness has published the book ever since 1955, after the managing director of Guinness got into an argument over which game bird was the fastest in Europe. He vowed to create a book that would settle pub arguments once and for all, and so the book of records was born.

A Proper Pint

A proper pint of Guinness should have a thick head of foam on top. To get this right, the bartender pours the draft into the pint, lets it sit for three or four minutes, then tops it off for serving. Traditionally, Guinness stout was served at room temperature. (Irish room temperature can be pretty cool, so that doesn't mean the beer was warm.) Some pubs in Ireland continue that practice.

There used to be a big difference between the flavors of draft Guinness and bottled Guinness, but recent advances in packaging technology have produced cans that can pour a pint almost as good as you'd find in a pub in County Meath.

With Guinness stout's strong flavor and popularity, it was inevitable that people would think of innovative ways to serve it. There are now many mixed drinks involving Guinness. Here are some of the more popular variants:

  • Black and Tan — Guinness and a lager or pale ale (traditionally Bass Ale)

  • Black Velvet — Guinness and champagne

  • Snakebite — Guinness and cider

  • Purple Meany — Guinness and a bitter

  • Drop of Diesel — a shot of Guinness in a pint of Smithwicks ale

The most popular pint, of course, is pure draught Guinness. There is considerable dispute in Ireland about where you can find the best pint. In Dublin, the two leading contenders are the St. James Gate Brewery and Mulligan's, a nearby pub that, according to folklore, has a pipe connecting its basement to the brewery. Other Irish people claim that you'll find the best pint in little pubs out in the country that serve their beer at room temperature and never clean the tap.

The best place to learn more about Guinness is at the St. James Gate Brewery in Dublin, which both produces beer and offers a glimpse into the magic of making stout. A glass of stout is included in the tour. Guinness has developed an advanced marketing machine, so get ready for the hard sell.

Other Contenders

Guinness gets the lion's share of attention, but there are a number of other excellent Irish beers. Brewers in Cork make Murphy's and Beamish, stouts that appear similar to Guinness but have distinctly different flavors. In Cork and the rest of Munster, these local brews are often more popular than Guinness stout. You can occasionally find Murphy's in bars outside of Ireland.

Smithwicks (“Smiddicks”) is the local brew in Kilkenny. Smithwicks is an amber ale with a slightly hoppy flavor. It's served throughout Ireland. In continental Europe, you might find it under the name “Kilkenny.”

There are a number of other beers that have recently come on the market to take advantage of the international enthusiasm for Irish beer. Harp is a lager brewed by Guinness. Murphy's has started brewing an ale called Murphy's Irish Red. With the proliferation of Irish pubs around the world, expect more Irish beers to appear in the near future.

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