For the uninitiated, Guinness Stout is a frightening beverage, imposing and murky with its extra-dark, almost black hue and dense, tan-colored foam. For the beer enthusiast, it’s the granddaddy of Irish-style stout and one of the finest ales produced on the globe.
Guinness, brewed in Dublin and London, is a top-fermenting brew made with highly roasted malts and roasted unmalted barley. It’s traditionally dispensed by use of nitrogen (as opposed to CO2, as with most keg beer) and consumed by the pint at “cellar temperatures” between 48-54 degrees Fahrenheit. Guinness qualifies as a “dry stout” or “Irish stout” — smoother and roastier than its English and American counterparts, such as “sweet stout,” “oatmeal stout,” and “milk stout” — all of which taste sweeter and tawnier and contain lactose. Many American-made stouts, especially from the Northwest microbrewery scene, are hopped at a higher rate and retain a stronger, more citrusy hop flavor and aroma.
Twenty years ago, it would have been difficult to find a bottle of Guinness in Charleston — much less a decently-poured pint of the stuff. Now, drinkers can find Guinness and other finer imports on tap or otherwise in many bars and restaurants.
According to local distributors, sales of Guinness are brisk across the Charleston scene. In downtown Charleston, the top sellers of Guinness include Tommy Condon’s Irish Pub & Seafood Restaurant, Charleston Beer Works, Wild Wing Café, and O’Malley’s Bar & Grill. On Sullivan’s Island, Poe’s Tavern and Dunleavy’s Pub top the Guinness sales list. Others include Madra Rua and Wild Wing Café in North Charleston, Mike Calder’s Buffalo Pub in Mt. Pleasant, Gene’s Haufbrau in West Ashley, and McGuire’s Irish Pub in Summerville.
High sales numbers are one thing; a high-quality pour is quite another. While many of the local bars and pubs offer Guinness on tap or by can or bottle, fewer take the time and trouble to serve it in traditional fashion: with several pours over the course of several minutes with very little foam at the top of the pint glass. Some slosh it with inconsistency into plastic cups. Some crack open a “draught-style” can or bottle and simply hand it over to the patron. Some serve old stuff in poor condition through dirty beer lines and spouts. Others take great care with the gas pressure settings, the cleanliness of the lines, taps, and glassware, and the actual dispensation of the brew.
Veteran bartender Doug Rodgers at Tommy Condon’s follows his own slow-pour procedure. Drawing from a keg kept at 49 degrees Fahrenheit, he pulls a little over half a pint in a 16 oz. glass and allows it to cascade and sit for at least a few minutes. This makes for a smoother texture and better head retention.
“It will dissipate and come up short if you pour it all at once,” he says. “I always pull about three-quarters of a pint and let that settle before squeezing it up to the top. We serve it with about a half-inch of head on the top [and a shamrock design from the final line off of the spout]. I’ve heard complaints from stout drinkers about getting pints from some bars with ‘priest’s collar’ head on the top. That’s too much.”
Is there such a thing as a “perfect pint” of Guinness? So-called “experts” — Irish or not —might turn blue in the face arguing the fine details. Perhaps the perfect pint is any cleanly-poured pint one might get their hands on at any time. Slainte!