This week I participated in an age-old ritual, steeped in science and tradition — an act tying together years of cultural pride and support of local manufacturing.
And it was delicious.
In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I headed to 6-year-old Guinness Open Gate Brewery in Arbutus to be schooled in the perfect Guinness two-part pour. The brewery, located in a former Seagram’s plant, is currently the Irish-based brand’s only U.S. outlet (another opens this summer in Chicago), and makes several beers exclusively, including the popular Baltimore Blonde.
But when I visited this week, I was focused on the Guinness Draught Stout, the distinctive dark concoction with the familiar foamy head immaculately perched on top of its signature glass and made only in Dublin. It’s tempting to want to fast-forward to the drinking part, but “art takes time,” explained Oliver Gray, Guinness Open Gate Brewery’s marketing manager, self-acknowledged “beer geek” and my beverage pouring instructor.
“It’s ritual,” said Gray, a former beer journalist. “It makes it more than just a drink.”
The brand was created by Arthur Guinness in 1759 in Dublin, a city that Gray said has a lot in common with Baltimore, itself a place that was significantly influenced by Irish immigrants. “Both were critical to the foundation of their nations,” he said, adding that seamstress Mary Pickersgill and others sewed the flag that Francis Scott Key saw waving after the Battle of Baltimore on the floor of what was then Brown’s Brewery. Synergy! Drinking! Drinkergy!
Before this week, I’d never practiced a dispensing a Guinness, but 20 years ago I used to drink a lot as a regular at an Irish pub in West Palm Beach, Florida. I did once have instruction there in pouring a Stella Artois, another beer with an elaborate process for getting from tap to glass, as a local celebrity bartender. I flubbed the first couple, to the good-natured heckling and delight of the staff, so I know how seriously people take this.
It’s not just about being fancy, but making sure that the Guinness tastes like it’s supposed to, Gray said. Its pouring practice came from the pre-technology days when bartenders combined older beer that had been sitting in wooden casks, losing gas but gaining flavor, with some that was just tapped.
Here’s how it works: Start with a clean, dry 20-ounce Guinness glass, conveniently created so you know where to put your fingers, like those stickers piano teachers put on the keys. Your thumb goes in the indent in the back of the glass, and your fingers go under the shiny golden harp on the front. Gray instructed me to hold it at a 45-degree angle, which initially made me nervous because it sounds like math. But it made sense when he said to focus on the harp, aiming the spout at it and opening the tap all the way until it hits the bottom of the harp.
Now, more math: Gray told me to slowly straighten the glass and put it aside, being careful not to disturb the head for 119.5 seconds for what is called the “surge and settle process, as millions of nitrogen bubbles” form and calm down. The bartenders at Guinness are actually timed during their beer pouring training. When the time is up, you pull the tap forward and fill it carefully. In the perfect pour, the head meets the top of the glass with no overflow. I nailed it.
“I feel like you’ve done this before,” Gray said approvingly. No, but I’m going to send video of it to the dudes at the Irish bar I used to hang out at! Once the beer was in the glass and on the way to my belly, Gray noted that Guinness is not black, as it’s often described, but a very dark brown “because it’s more malt roasted” to 232 degrees Celsius, “just to the edge of turning to ash.”
It’d been years since I’d had a Guinness ― I’m more a bourbon girl now — but the one I poured was the best one I’ve ever had: malty, creamy and fresh. I also got a chance to try a Clover Honey Ale and Breakfast Tea Amber, two of the four signature beers available at the brewery in March. St. Patrick’s Day is on a Friday this year, so you know the place will be packed. I myself will be celebrating at home, but I can’t wait to get my very own Guinness glass and try the pour with the canned version in my kitchen. It’s art, like Gray said. And shouldn’t I want to study art?