Pouring the Perfect Guinness for St. Patty's

March 15 2013 - 1:00 PM

Guinness Beer

So, why do I like writing about beer?  There are many reasons, but the bottom line is that the world of beer is nothing short of fun. In the beer world, there are some excellent people to meet, interesting and memorable places to go and, above all, superb beers to try.  I’m glad to have the opportunity to regularly embrace beer culture.

The other day, my little role in the beer world took a unique turn.  I was invited to participate in the How To Pour A Perfect Guinness event at Emmit’s Irish Pub, which proudly serves brews to Chicago’s River West neighborhood.

In a St. Patty’s seasonal event sponsored by Guinness and the Leary Firefighters Foundation, esteemed members of the Chicago food and beverage media (using “esteemed” liberally, as self-applied), were invited to face off against each other in a competitive pouring of the legendary Irish dry stout.  The media member to most perfectly pour a Guinness would have a check for $2,000 donated on their behalf to a local firehouse of choice, courtesy of the Foundation. Spectators were invited to bid on a freshly poured pint, with all proceeds donated in support of firefighters’ resources, training and education.

Let me interject about Guinness for a moment.  I’ll never forget my first one. It was served at Fifth and Vine Bar in Cincinnati as part of a black-and-tan.  I’ve reached the point where I won’t name the year. But I was 23. My palate for craft beer developed much later, but Guinness will always occupy a special place.

There are other great dry or nitro stouts out there – Murphy’s, St. Ambroise, Victory, to name a few – but Guinness has a unique flavor and place in the beer world.  There are many parts to Guinness’ appeal: the mesmerizing cascading of the bubbles, the patented line between the creamy head and dark fluid, the slight roasted nuttiness of the flavor. Guinness indeed appeals to multiple senses at once, and it is always a treat to find a bar in the States that pours it exquisitely.  When you’re in the mood for a Guinness, nothing else will do.

At Emmit’s that evening, four competitors, including yours truly, gathered together near a couple of Guinness taps affixed to a large picnic cooler to receive our instructions on the perfect pour.  Our instructor was Diarmuid Galvin of Diageo, Guinness’s distributor, who sported a sharp Irish accent and a technician’s understanding.  As he so knowingly and passionately advised, the keys to the perfect pour are glass handling, timing and attentiveness.

During stage one of the pour, to permit head development, one should hold the glass at a 45-degree angle while pulling the tap handle down at 90-degrees, parallel to the countertop.  If one is using the proper 20-oz. pint glass with the Guinness lettering under the trademark harp logo, the glass should be filled until the liquid reaches around the middle of the harp. Never let the glass touch the tap handle. Allow 90 seconds for the liquid to settle, then begin the top-off.  You’ll want to fill the remainder of the glass with the rich, foamy liquid until the head slightly exceeds the rim, trusting the surface tension to safeguard against spillage over the side. This is not a Miller ad, after all.  Importantly, there should be no bubbles in the top.  Tracing a shamrock in the head is purely optional.

As pouring hour approached, hearts pounded faster.  Tensions simmered.  Well, it was as tense as a charitable Guinness pour among amateurs gets.  Since there were four of us in total, we were each paired off against a competitor in the first round (Hey! I made the semifinals!).  The winners were to square off in the finals.  Yes, I didn’t escape the first round.  But it was comforting to have a true Irishman inform me that my effort was good and that my beer looked lovely.  The reasons for my early defeat were twofold.  Not only did I use multiple top-offs to complete the head, I also erred by having the head of my pour display several bubbles.

Who knew that pouring a beer was so exacting?   Yet, that care and craftsmanship make me all the more appreciate a well-poured Guinness.  In the future, I’ll return to gushing about beers such as Dogfish Head 90, Dreadnaught, Kentucky Breakfast Stout, Black Butte Porter, etc.  But, despite those beers’ greatness, none of those beers, and few others, have such a methodology to their display, or such a celebratory culture around their very existence.

I would like to say a special thanks to Megan Freiler of Taylor Global Inc. – who I sincerely hope got to try a slice of Chicago-style pizza – and the other great folks who helped to organize and manage the event.  But, I’m warning you all.  Next year, I’m taking the title as the start of a dynasty.

–M. Sheppard