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Jet Black: Flying to Dublin, Guinness Class

October 14, 2012 8 comments

Guinness has worked very hard over the decades to associate itself intimately with a romantic notion of the Irish drinking culture and their most recent campaign is an especially literal reflection of that.  Every Friday and Saturday night over a 9 week period, Guinness reps will go into pubs in British cities between 6pm and 8pm, giving those drinking Guinness a chance to win a private jet flight to Dublin for the night, departing right there and then.

Through entering a competition on Peer Index, a social networking marketing site, Kate and I won the same prize along with two other couples, from London and Glasgow (none of whom were beer bloggers/tweeters).  We were given tickets to Birmingham Airport, checked into an airport hotel and at 8.15pm flew on a Cessna Citation to Dublin.

We had a fantastic night: the trip in the jet was fast, comfortable and relaxed.  We were taken to O’Donoghue’s for Guinness and music, The Elephant and Castle for dinner (including some incredible chicken wings), the Oliver St. John Gogarty for more beer and music, the Temple Bar and finally the Mercantile Hotel.  We also met up with that evening’s pub competition winners, who had been picked up from Luton and flown out after us.

We were then flown back to Birmingham at two in the morning, with more Guinness (and Guinness chocolate and Guinness nuts) on the plane.  We’d had a great, and slightly surreal time, joining in with the many tourists (particularly German football fans and English Rugby Union fans) enjoying a night out in Temple Bar.  I obviously know that there’s much more to Dublin than Temple Bar (see here) and much more to Irish beer than Guinness (see here) , but it was a really special evening.

As a point of order, I am aware that I wouldn’t have had the chance to win this trip if I hadn’t been regarded an “influencer” by PeerIndex. It’s probably the most impressive “freebie” I’ve ever heard of, and all of us know that word of mouth marketing, such as this post, is the intended result.  But I can tell you that we had a lot of fun and met some nice people.  Even as a BrewDog shareholder, I wasn’t about to turn down such an opportunity, especially given the amount of money I’ve spent on Guinness over the years.

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Guinness Gives You Wood

I tend to get a reasonable amount of site traffic every time I mention Guinness, but I was surprised to see that someone found my blog the other day with the search terms, “Does the beer Guinness give you a hard erection?

 The simple answer to the question is of course, “Woah there, settle down fella!  We all like our beer but that’s taking it a bit too far.”

It’s a fairly interesting point though, as myths about the miraculous qualities of Guinness persist despite all evidence to the contrary.  It seems that some pregnant women still take to drinking Guinness (and some mid-wives even continue to recommend it) as it’s supposedly high in iron.  In fact it only contains 1.1mg of iron per pint, so even a non-pregnant woman would need to drink 14 pints to get her RDA of iron, which would also give her 2,786 calories.  No need to eat at all, eh?

Guinness is a pretty filling beer but not unusually high in calories… for beer.  In fact if you go to the Guinness website you can find the table below, which in an attempt to refute this perception puts it at 199 calories a pint, which is at least considerably less than Stella at 245 calories a pint.  But then Stella has a higher ABV and if you’re counting calories when you drink beer, you may as well give up and go on to the gin and slimline tonics, because you’ll be depressed anyway.

Apparently Guinness is regarded as an aphrodisiac in some parts of Africa, the Far East and the Carribean, sometimes with a raw egg in it.  However one site that suggests stout with raw eggs as a way that a “50 year old man can make love like a 20 year old” also suggests that the unfortunate gentleman tape a magnet to his “sacred chakra”.  It goes on:

“If you place the magnet overnight, you may get a morning erection the following day. This shows that blood circulation has indeed occurred in your body.”
 
The fact that you wake up the next day at all shows that “blood circulation has indeed occurred”.  If you have no circulation, a lacklustre morning glory is probably the least of your worries.  On the bright side, there’s always rigor mortis to look forward to.
 
 
Beer with a raw egg in it is a traditional hangover cure or setup for a hard day, as viewers of season 2 of The Wire will be aware.  Eggs, like oysters, are high in zinc which helps produce testosterone, so it’s not a bad call.  Perhaps the deflated search engine user might want to try Guinness and oysters to help him keep up appearances.
 
Alternatively, he could always try the BrewDog beer brewed with “herbal viagra”, whatever that is.  However I reckon he’d be better off getting out the fridge magnets and the masking tape.
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Irish Beer: The Church, The Long Hall, & McDaid’s, Dublin

As my last few posts demonstrate, I was pretty impressed with the state of the Irish craft beer scene.  There are some interesting beers and great bars to be found if you know where to go.  In that respect, you could do worse than checking out the directories on Beoir.

However, it’s probably fair to say that Irish craft beer is still something that is either fortuitously stumbled upon or actively sought out.  You could easily visit the Republic of Ireland and have no inkling of the existence of native craft beer, and most visitors almost certainly just sink a few pints of Guinness and come away with a view of Irish beer with is positive but monolithic.  More specifically, an immovable black monolith with a shiny gold harp in the middle, three quarters of the way up.

Which brings us on to the subject of this post, which is basically that there are some very nice bars in Dublin which haven’t yet bought in to craft beer, even if they are part of the tourist trail.  The first one we visited was The Church, an interesting large bar and restaurant in what used to be St Mary’s Church Of Ireland on Mary Street, close to the busy shopping area around Henry Street.

The Church has a considerable history, including being the place where Wolfe Tone (a Protestant and a rebel) was baptised and Arthur Guinness (a Protestant and a Unionist) was married.  A bust of Arthur Guinness sits at the end of the bar, one of a number of interesting features including the organ pipes on the wall and a pleasant stained glass window.  A bright, spacious and bustling venue, I can see that The Church would be an interesting and unusual place to come for lunch, Guinness or a cocktail.

A more traditional pub, but one that is no less spectacular, is The Long Hall.  It has a wonderfully preserved interior, with a lot of decorative dark wood, elaborate light fittings and mirrors.  On the afternoon we visited they were polishing the fittings with Brasso and the air was quite potent with the fumes.  At the end of the bar a wooden archway suspends a clock above your head as you walk into the back room.  I suppose it would have separated the equivalent of the public bar and the lounge bar or dining room back in the day.  We stopped at the bar briefly for a Beamish and quietly enjoyed the surroundings.

McDaid’s is another traditional Victorian pub.  Just off Grafton Street, I remembered the distinctive and colourful frontage from when I visited Dublin as a child.  Nowadays a statue of Phil Lynott stands opposite it, a man who (with Whiskey In The Jar) did a fine job of exploiting Irish tradition and at the same time reinventing it.

Inside, McDaid’s conforms to all my own prejudices about what a Dublin pub should look like, with more dark wood, wooden floors, decorative tiles, mirrors and leather benches, and an incredibly high ceiling for who knows what reason.  Perhaps a lower ceiling would have turned the place into a box of smoke.  The natural light from the huge windows falls attractively into this setting.

Although it would appear almost every Dublin pub of any age purports to have some literary connection or other, McDaids claims an exceptionally illustrious heritage, with a clientele which included Brendan Behan, Patrick Kavanagh, Flann O’Brien and J.P. Donleavy, amongst others. 

You probably won’t find a pint of Galway Hooker in any of these pubs.  You certainly won’t find a working handpump.  I didn’t even notice any Irish craft beer in bottles, although I might just have missed them.  However, they’re definitely all worth a visit nonetheless, for a pint of Guinness or a glass of John Powers, whilst you let yourself forget how much is history rather than nostalgia, marketing or myth.

Irish Beer: Guinness Gives You Mid-Strength; Mulligans Of Poolbeg Street

April 6, 2011 1 comment

On our last day in Ireland, Kate and I went to see the Book Of Kells (the main problem with which, as an exhibit, is that it’s a book, and it’s therefore only open at one place at any one time), following which we fancied a final pint in a traditional Dublin pub before catching the bus to the airport.

We decided on Mulligan’s on Poolbeg Street, a dark, slightly bare looking pub with horse racing on the TV above the bar.  The Dorling Kindersley Guide To Ireland made the bold assertion that it was generally regarded amongst locals as pouring the best pint of Guinness in the city.

Now, given Guinness’ method of dispense, I am aware that there is actually likely to be bugger all difference from pub to pub.  It’s not hard to keep and in my experience is actually pretty consistent even in England, if you ignore all that “Guinness doesn’t travel” business.

Over the course of four days in Ireland I had naturally consumed Guinness in a number of different pubs: Moran’s Oyster Cottage in Kilcolgan; O’Riardins in Oranmore; McDaid’s off Grafton Street.  Each of them were good and, for the avoidance of doubt, none had a frigging shamrock drawn on the head.

However I had noticed one variation: in around half of the places I had it, the Guinness had a slightly alcoholic kick in the back end of the aftertaste.  I hadn’t noticed this before but Kate recognised it as well.  I’m not sure why it would be present in some places but not others, and thought it might be related to different batches, different ages of beer or perhaps a slightly quicker turnover.  In any case, I quite enjoyed the slightly boozier hit.

The Guinness we had in Mulligan’s didn’t have the alcohol aftertaste, and went perfectly well with a packet of cheese and onion crisps.  However they also had a variation on Guinness that I hadn’t tried before: Guinness Mid-Strength, a 2.8% version of draft Guinness, which is normally 4.2%.

When we ordered a half for a side-by-side comparison, the barman said that he didn’t think it tasted any different.  He wasn’t far off.  Guinness doesn’t smell or taste of very much relative to bolder stouts and porters, so there wasn’t much of a loss in the taste department.  However, there was very slightly more watery mouthfeel.  All-in-all though, I think that any normal drinker, including myself, probably wouldn’t notice it was a different drink to normal Guinness if handed a cold pint in the pub.  Erm, unless it said “Guinness Mid-Strength” on the glass.

It seems to me that a lot of thought has gone into making a beer that tastes as near as possible to normal Guinness but 1.3% less.  It does beg the question as to why they bothered: were people really clamouring for a weaker Guinness?  I know in some quarters it has a reputation for being a stronger beer than it actually is, but at around 4.1% it’s within most people’s definition of a session beer.

It seems that Diageo have been trialling Guinness Mid-Strength for five years now, and It’s being aimed at a market that want to drink during the week, for instance watching the football, but without suffering the “consequences”.  I’m not convinced that further tinkering so close to a core brand that makes much of its long history, tradition and authenticity is the most sensible thing to do, nomatter how much that beer has actually been tweaked, altered and the method of dispense completely overhauled over the years.

With beer duty being halved in the UK for drinks of 2.8% or less produced by large brewers (small brewers don’t get any additional benefit), there’s more incentive than ever for Diageo to attempt to launch Guinness Mid-Strength in the UK.  However, if the experience in Ireland is anything to go by, the saving on duty will go straight into Diageo’s profits and won’t be reflected in the price.

See this post for my reviews of a couple of more muscular versions of Guinness, which I hope survive the rise in beer duty for “superstrength” beers.

Irish Beer: Galway Hooker at Moran’s Oyster Cottage

April 5, 2011 3 comments

The simple joy of meeting up in the pub to relax and celebrate at the completion of an arduous task was illustrated perfectly last weekend. Kate, her sisters and I flew to Ireland to meet their parents at the end of a remarkable walk from coast to coast for the cancer prevention charity, Genesis. They had arranged to finish their walk by the seaside in Moran’s Oyster Cottage in County Galway. Kate’s mother didn’t know we were coming to meet them.

An early morning Ryanair flight and a few hours in a rental car along a great new road later, we had a very pleasant wait in the older front bar of Moran’s. It’s expanded out the back into a fairly large pub restaurant. However the staff were very friendly and happy for us and the others to sit and drink for most of the afternoon before ordering some really delicious food: grilled oysters and huge portions of baked salmon.

As you might expect, the most popular drink in a thatched pub serving shellfish in the West of Ireland is Guinness. Of course the pints were just as good as you’d expect, with the traditional surroundings and the wheaten bread, smoked salmon, prawns and crab (and a couple of glasses of bubbly) we had with them all contributing to a great afternoon. What I hadn’t really expected to find in Moran’s was craft beer.

I know there’s been a renaissance of craft brewing in recent years (see this excellent Irish Times Article of last Saturday), but I expected to find them in craft beer bars in Dublin, not a seafood pub in rural Galway. That said, Galway Hooker is a local beer.

The Irish craft beer movement is primarily keg and bottle-driven, rather than cask. This is a reflection of the history of Irish beer, where one or two large breweries drove out competition and their chosen methods of dispense dominated. The styles of beer favoured by these new breweries tend towards stouts and “Irish reds”, as you might also expect, given the lack of variation available to Irish drinkers until more recently.

However, Galway Hooker, along with a number of other beers I was to try later in Dublin, has recaptured the hop for Ireland. It’s a lovely refreshing pale to amber ale with a nice floral but biting hoppiness, all of which is complemented by being served cold and from keg, like it might be in a US craft beer bar. 

It was great to have it in this setting, a quiet recognition that craft beer is as Irish a product as the thick-shelled native oysters I had for dinner and indeed arguably more Irish these days than the Diageo-owned Guinness.  Galway Hooker is soon to be available in bottles, so maybe we might see some of it in the UK.

Dave and Rosie have so far raised over £4,300 to help research and prevention of genetic breast cancer, which Dave himself has survived.  Please consider making a small donation to this very worthy cause here.  If you do, tell me next time you meet me and I promise to buy you a pint.

Guinness Gives You Strength (4.1%-8%)

December 21, 2010 1 comment

Do you know what I am going to tell you, he said with his wry mouth, a pint of plain is your only man.

Notwithstanding this eulogy, I soon found that the mass of plain porter bears an unsatisfactory relation to its toxic content and I subsequently became addicted to brown stout in bottle, a drink which still remains the one that I prefer the most despite the painful and blinding fits of vomiting which a plurality of bottles has often induced in me.

Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)

The post I did a while back on the Guinness Surger got me thinking more about Guinness. Guinness is definitely the beer I’ve drank the most of in my life. Given that Diageo own Guinness, Bushmills whiskey and Gordons gin, I dread to think how much money I’ve thrown their way since reaching adulthood.

My grandfather was a Guinness drinker. He moderately drank bottles of the stuff, generally warmed – for reasons that may now be lost to the ages – by setting it on the stove in the pub or on the fireplace at home. I fell into drinking Guinness, with its carefully crafted image of traditional Irishness and an air of sophisticated adulthood, as the best alternative to the hated lager in a beer desert. Few Guinness-drinkers in Great Britain get asked for ID, in my experience.

Moreover, I know where I am with Guinness more than any other drink. “Sessionable” (*shiver*) as it is, I’ve never gotten terribly drunk or ill off it. Although there was an unfortunate incident one morning when I was a hungover student part-time barman, when I went to the pub toilet for a discreet and brief vomiting fit between the first and second pour of the first customer’s stout. I don’t think he noticed.

Of course most Guinness is less “authentic” than it holds itself out to be.  The accepted method of dispense of draught Guinness, the nitro-keg, has only been around since 1964, the year Brendan Behan died. Brian O’Nolan (Flann himself; another terrible man for the drink) only lasted another two years, so I wonder if he ever tried it.

The canned widget Guinness has always seemed to me a reasonable alternative to actual draught Guinness, for applying to the interior of your body when safely in your own home. But in recent years I’ve found them both terribly dull. So I went to the supermarket and Beer Ritz to purchase the materials for an experiment: four different types of Guinness, all with different ABVs and one of which almost twice as strong as the first.

Using half of the “Guinness Original” to make a beef and Guinness which was stewing away in the oven, we set about seeing how they stood up to each other with a side-by-side comparison:

Guinness Draught (4.1% ABV)

Perhaps it’s an unfair test to compare a canned product to four bottled ones, but I couldn’t find any widget bottles of Guinness and in any event cans are the future of craft beer according to some zythofuturologists, so Guinness can lump it too. We all know this one, and for me familiarity has bred, if not contempt, then certainly ennui and potentially an immunity to any taste.

I was going to say it tastes of tin, but I’m not sure if it doesn’t mainly taste of widget. There’s a definite dull metallic wateriness to it that it has in common with cans of smooth Tetley’s, Boddingtons and John Smiths and to me tastes of parties located near off-licences with a very limited range.

When held up to the light, like the Original below, there’s a definite red colour. The wateriness described above makes it very difficult to detect any distinct flavour, but there’s a very slight malt bitterness in the aftertaste.

Guinness Original (4.2% ABV)

Surprisingly very slightly stronger than the draught stuff, this is a real improvement. The flavours are still quite subtle, but the dryness is much more noticeable. Kate noted that the carbonation added to the bitterness and I agreed.

However the flavours are so delicate that they reminded us both of the weaker dark milds I wrote about here. Whilst there’s a very slight roasted flavour, again it’s much milder than someone who had never heard of Guinness would expect a “stout” to be.

Guinness Foreign Extra (7.5% ABV)

Ah, now it suddenly gets exciting.  The head on the previous two was a similar light cream, whereas this is much more yellow to brown.  The beer is almost totally opaque with a dark treacle aroma.

It tastes nicely bitter, with some caramel, chocolate and, whilst by no means smokey, definitely more roasted.  There’s a solid alcoholic punch to the smell and the taste that numbs the tongue at first. The back label says it’s “brewed with extra hops and roasted barley for a natural bite“.  It makes you wonder why they don’t usually bother.  Very good indeed.

They’ve only released this in America this year, which seems odd, given that it seems to me that Americans love the brand image of Guinness and US craft brewers have done a lot of groundwork in creating a market for imperial stouts.

Guinness Special Export (8% ABV)

Whereas the Foreign Export has a slightly modern look, this beer – exported to Belgium then imported back to these islands to maximise the carbon footprint – has a pleasingly retro label.   It was apparently commissioned for export by John Martin of Belgium in 1912 and was the first Guinness to be pasteurised.  I would love to try an unpasteurised version of Guinness.

The head on the Special Export is a step back to the whiter colour of the normal ABV versions.  This is the first indication that the flavours are more subtle than the Foreign Extra.  Again we get the treacle aroma, but although the ABV is higher, there’s less of an obvious alcohol smell.

The bolder flavours of the Foreign Extra contrast sharply with the dry, crisp bitterness of this, which seems like a logical big brother to the Original.  Whilst being a surprisingly different beer, it’s also a revelation. 

I have no doubt that a plurality of bottles of either of the last two would produce “painful and blinding fits of vomiting“.  However it might even be worth it.  Suddenly I think I might genuinely like Guinness again, although it’s a shame that the best stuff is about to get whacked with an idiotic tramp lager tax.

Oh, and it makes a damn fine beef stew as well.

A Life In The Pub Part 2: Pounding Shilling For Pence

December 14, 2010 Leave a comment

One of the things I intended to do with this blog was to explain how I’d got here from there in terms of beer.  Specifically, how I gradually started to like interesting beers and real ales from a low base, coming from a drinking culture dominated by kegs of Tennents, Harp, Guinness, Bass and maybe the odd Smithwicks, and with no pubs that I knew of that offered cask beer.

I’ll get back to the Northern Irish beer culture of my youth later, as I want to address the next stage.  In 1998, when Kate and Will was still doing their respective GCSEs, I went to St Andrews University to study Modern History, International Relations and Individual Alcohol Tolerances.

As I never really liked lager, I was drinking a lot of Guinness at this stage, but also a lot of nitro kegged/smoothflow beers such as Caffreys.  However it must have been in that first year at St Andrews that  I started drinking my first real ales.

I started on 70 shilling beer, which I found largely similar to the smoothflow Caffreys. In fact Tennents Velvet seemed to be a smoothflow version of 70/- (someone may correct me here), and filled the same place in the market as the nitrokegged John Smith or Tetleys.  It was creamy, easy to drink and unchallenging to my admittedly unsophisticated tastes.

However, over time, Caledonian 80/- became my drink of choice during the four years I spent in the Kingdom of Fife before they reluctantly admitted I was a Master of the Arts (second class).  It was available everywhere (see the Beer Monkey’s view on Caley’s ubiquity in the capital here) and just tasted that bit more interesting than the 70/-.  I remember deciding that McEwans 80/- tasted horrible in comparison.

Moreover, those of my Scottish friends who liked beer (mainly as something to drink early in the night whilst you discussed whisky) seemed to consider that Caley 80/- was a respectable thing for a man to drink.  Whilst I liked 80/-, I think I liked the pubs I drank it in more: Aikman’s; the Whey Pat; the Central.  I’ll hopefully deal with them in a future post.

I haven’t had Caley 80/- in what must be about five years, and I don’t recall the parting being unbearable.  But in the interest of historical analysis, I’m currently drinking a bottle, which for student authenticity I picked up for a quid.  It’s not a fair test because (1) It’s a pasteurised bottle, not a pint from cask and (2) it was cheap because it’s slightly out of date and (3) it wasn’t bought with a quaint Scottish pound note.

Nevertheless, I can report that it’s a pleasant but unexciting drink.  It smells and tastes malty and sweetly sour, like raspberries.  It might just be the age of this bottle, but as I get towards the bottom (without the benefit of a deep-fried pizza/crunchie/haggis/Englishman to match the taste) it’s beginning to get into the thinner, milder end of fruit beer territory.

I can see why I liked it.  I think I preferred it over the 70/- mainly for the maltiness – it took me a while to really like pale ales.  It’s not bad at all and a hell of an improvement on Caffreys, but it’s not exciting enough to want to drink it for another four year stretch.  My tastes have definitely moved on.

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