Like all things that evoke undue passion and loyalty, the beer industry boasts more than its fair share of issues up for constant debate. Some beer myths have been soundly debunked, while others persist. And perhaps one of the most common questions remains: Does Guinness really taste better when consumed in Ireland versus anywhere else in the world?
We’ll get to that in a moment.
But first let us reflect on the value of that famed stout, as a beer, an institution, and an experience. Founded in 1795 when Arthur Guinness signed a 9,000-year lease (for 45 pounds per annum) at an unused brewery at Dublin’s St. James Gate, Guinness has become one of the most popular beers in the world, brewed in almost 60 countries and available in more than 120. Though it’s easily the most-consumed alcoholic beverage in Ireland, Guinness is more than just an Irish drinking institution. It has been a lifeblood industry for both its host city and the country, responsible for laying more than 13,000 train tracks to distribute the beer and employing countless generations of Irish. Hell, the brewery even created the equally institutional Guinness Book of World Records,—the end result of when the brewery’s marketing director got into a conversation about what was the world’s fastest game bird.
You can best grasp Guinness’ bona fide personality by visiting its Dublin headquarters. Unlike most brewery tours, which typically parade tourists down the assembly lines with the requisite education on how beer is made, and how that brewery differs from all the rest, going to the Guinness brewery is a decidedly surreal experience.
First off, the Guinness HQ is not where the beer is made. It had been made there for centuries, but in 1988, manufacturing was moved to adjacent warehouses, and they rebuilt the old space into a massive machine of a visitor’s center. Walk in, and you feel as if you’re entering an amusement park, some sort of stout-centric Disney World, rather than a brewery. Welcome signs greet you in a dozen languages, and the admission lines are cordoned off in a maze of ropes, crowd control for the more than 5,000 visitors that come each day during the peak travel season.
Grab an audio tour and start taking in the exhibits, which include detailed portrayals of the brewery’s history, a survey on how the beer is crafted, a massive water feature, and a world map indicating where the various beer types are most popular. Motion-activated monitors play short movies with actors that narrate interesting facts about Arthur’s life (like the fact he had 22 children, all with the same woman). Special classes teach you how to pour the perfect pint. A sensory “tasting” experience takes place in an all-white room, followed by sipping tasters in what feels like a British study from the turn of the century. You can dine at one of several restaurants, or head into the Connoisseur’s Room to sample all the other Guinness beers they make beyond the traditional stout. You can even pose in front of a massive figure to make it look as if you’re staring in one of Guinness’ iconic 1950s advertisements. The path winds through each of the facility’s seven floors while rotating around what’s accurately described as the world’s biggest pint glass, which stands at the center of the structure.
It all ends in triumph at the Gravity Bar, a glass-wall pub on the seventh floor with thumping dance music, unfettered panoramic views of Dublin, and loads of pints on hand; you get one free pint with your entry fee, but the rest will cost you. And you will have more than one as you pause and drink in the view.
But it really all comes back to the beer. As many as three million pints are produced in Dublin each day, and each follows the same formula: Dublin water; imported, liquidized hops; barley—80% malted, and 10% roasted, which imparts the beer’s famed ruby-red color; and yeast that traces back to the same strain used in the 19th century. (We were told that a reserve supply is locked up in the Brewery Director’s safe.) Carbonation comes from a mixture of 25% Co2 and 75% nitrogen, the latter responsible for the beer’s thick tan head.
Quality controls occur daily at 10 a.m. with near-religious precision.
But back to whether or not Guinness actually tastes better when consumed at the Guinness factory…or in Dublin…or in Ireland verses the rest of the world.
In some ways, it’s impossible to say for certain. Until Star Trek teleporters are invented, a side-by-side taste comparison with a pint from Ireland, a pour from England, or a pint from New York simply can’t happen.
But to me, that first pint I had in Dublin sure tasted better than any other pint of Guinness I’d had before it.
Part of that may be attributed to unkempt tap lines back in the States, though most serious bars understand the value of keeping their equipment clean. Or maybe establishments in the United States don’t serve Guinness at the ideal temperature, which is between 5 and 7 degrees Celsius, cool but not cold, and certainly not warm—a temp that assures the sweetness of the malt will announce itself on the nose and all the tastes of this beer will be there, full and pure, as you take a big gulp. Or maybe some U.S. bartenders don’t believe in the slow pour—filling the glass ¾ of the way, then letting it settle before tapping it off, and then letting it settle again before sipping (a myth that Paste debunks, despite Guinness’ official opinion on the matter).
But more than anything else, my opinion is influenced by simply being in Ireland and ordering a pint of Guinness. By sitting in a storied, dark pub decorated with decades of random detritus—the kind of bars those horrible Irish chains in the States so poorly approximate. By waiting patiently for that beer while listening to a few locals play an Irish folk song on accordion, by having it passed to you by a bartender with that accent and that good charm and that warm welcome. By all those little details that are as much a part of Ireland’s convivial reputation as the country’s verdant rolling hills, its sheep, its Celtic crosses.
It’s a country that birthed 1,000 clichés, and all of ‘em ring true.
Back home, my beer appetite is all over the map, but I typically swim in hoppy waters of the IPAs and the new waves of aged sours. But in Ireland, even with other beers on tap—including microbrews from the Emerald Isle—it felt wrong to order anything other than Guinness, often with a nice Irish whiskey on the side.
Guinness in Ireland just feels right, and it tastes better than pretty much anywhere else.