Begorrah! Here we go again!
By Mark Tichenor and Bruce Lish
Well, it’s that time of the year again; the time when everyone freaks out about all things Irish. Not that we’re complaining. After all, it’s much easier to wrap a beer column around a holiday like St. Patrick’s Day than, say, Arbor Day or President’s Week.
So you’re gonna dress up in green, pile the family into the SUV, and head on down to the scary, scary City for the parade. Chances are you’ll wind up with a Guinness in your hand, and that’s not a bad thing, even if you’re unfamiliar with the style.
Guinness is one of the most well-known beers in the world, and the preeminent Irish stout. Thanks to the brewery’s enormous marketing outlay, they have completely co-opted any religious significance that St. Pat’s still had, effectively turning March 17th into “Guinness Day. But we can forgive them for the ruthless commercialism, because they do brew a fine stout.
Irish stout as a beer style evolved from the dark, malty porters brewed in England during the 18th century. As Porter’s popularity waned in the big island, it remained popular in Ireland until the latter half of the 1800s. Arthur Guinness, local Dublin brewer, modified the beer until it suited local palates, using darker malt and changing the hop balance to create a full-bodied, nearly black brew which was less sweet than its ancestor, and that’s more or less what we have today.
Irish stouts like Guinness are carbonated with nitrogen, not carbon dioxide, so the bubbles are smaller. This gives the beer its distinctive cascading foamy pour, full body, and creamy head. The strong roasted malt dominates the flavor, but it’s skillfully balanced by the hop bitterness. You’ll also detect a slight sour astringency in the aftertaste.
Naturally, Guinness isn’t the only Irish stout. Ireland’s second city, Cork, is home to the two other big brewers of the style: Murphy’s and Beamish. These two lack some of Guinness’ bitterness and retain a bit more sweetness. However, they’re going to be a lot more difficult (nigh impossible at the moment, actually), to find on draft here. They’re only available in nitrogen cans at your favorite specialty beer store.
The dark color and thick mouth feel of Irish stout often leads people to assume that the style is very strong and highly caloric. Actually, the opposite is true. The only thing that makes stouts dark is the fact that the malt has been darkened by the roasting process. The “thick” feel is due to the nitrogen carbonation. A 20 ounce imperial pint of Guinness contains around 210 calories, fewer than in a pint of orange juice. And at 4.2% alcohol by volume, it’s no stronger than a typical American lager.
So Irish stout may not actually be diet food, but with its beautiful visual and flavorful aesthetics, it might be just the beer to inspire your poetic muse, just like it did for James Joyce, Brendan Behan, and that guy from the House of Pain. We’ll leave you to your pint with an old Irish proverb:
May the wind always be at your back
May Celtic win the Champion’s League
May your pint always be fresh
And may the road rise up to meet you (but not too hard)
In other beers:
If you like bowling, and you like good beer, check out L&M Lanes on Merchant’s road by Culver. Two floors of bowling lanes, a steel-tip dart board, and an impressive array of taps make for a fun, social evening. Standouts from the beer menu include Victory Prima Pils and one of our favorites, Southern Tier Phin and Matt’s Extraordinary Ale. These beers are just the thing for when you’re swinging hard15-pound spheres by the tips of your fingers.
Bruce is a certified beer judge and former commercial brewer. Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at http://beercraft.blogspot.com. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.