On tap and in cans, Pub Draught Guinness is the same.
On tap and in cans, Pub Draught Guinness is the same. (By Paul Dodds -- Bloomberg News)
By Greg Kitsock
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 8, 2006


As St. Patrick's Day approaches, even the most timid light beer drinkers can be persuaded to hoist a Guinness Stout .

According to Fergal Murray, Guinness's brewmaster, it's not so much the flavor but "the ritual of the pour" that reels in new customers: the maelstrom of tiny bubbles that separates itself into a deep ruby-colored liquid and tawny head.

The milkshake-like foam results from a mixed-gas (carbon dioxide and nitrogen) dispense system that Guinness perfected in the late 1950s. The rest we owe to a wily brewmaster perpetrating a tax dodge on the British crown.

Arthur Guinness Jr., son of the brewery founder, made his fortune in the 19th century brewing a dark ale called porter. He reasoned that he could save money by skimping on the barley malt (which was highly taxed back then) and substituting some roasted, unmalted barley (which wasn't). That pinch of roasted barley (about 10 percent of the total grain bill) gives Guinness its color and its burnt, coffeelike flavor with an acidic note in the finish.

Draft Guinness is a subtle beer. I've heard pubgoers turn down a Guinness for some mass-market American lager, using the alibi that they had to drive or that they were on a diet. In fact, Guinness measures only 4.2 percent alcohol by volume (Budweiser is about 5 percent) and has 125 calories per 12-ounce serving (vs. 147 for Bud). In layered half-and-halfs, the lighter Guinness is poured on top of the golden Harp Lager or Bass Ale.

Beer in general is a lubricant to small talk, but Guinness is often the topic of conversation itself. FAQs include:

· Is a pint of Guinness in America as good as a pint in Ireland? It all comes from the same source, Murray insists -- the St. James's Gate Brewery in Dublin.

· Is the Pub Draught Guinness in cans the same as Guinness from the tap? It's brewed from the same recipe, Murray says. A plastic device called a "widget" holds some of the beer under pressure, releasing the creamy head when you push in the tab.

Murray says that the recipe for draft Guinness has remained unchanged since 1959, despite the complaints of some beer geeks that the brewery has been lightening the beer to attract more customers. (I've often wondered if serving temperature is at the root of changed perceptions. The company recommends serving Guinness at 37 to 42 degrees, significantly colder than a generation ago.) Murray cautions against confusing draft Guinness with the bottled Guinness Extra Stout , which is stronger (5.5 percent alcohol) and more intensely flavored. You might want to trace a maple leaf in the foam instead of the customary shamrock: The Extra Stout sold in the United States is brewed under license in Canada.

Diageo (the corporation that owns Guinness) estimates that Americans down 217 million pints of Guinness each year, 25 percent of that in the four weeks leading up to St. Patrick's Day on March 17. Guinness's chief rivals, Murphy's and Beamish, hail from Cork. Murphy's, available stateside in kegs and "widget" cans, is somewhat sweeter and fuller-bodied than a Guinness, with a coffee-and-cream aftertaste. Beamish was recently dropped by its American importer, though a few stray kegs might still be in the pipeline.

Packaging microbreweries (at least in this region) tend to avoid Guinness's turf, preferring to brew sweeter oatmeal stouts or the much heavier and more alcoholic imperial stouts. An exception is Fordham Brewing Co. of Dover, Del., with its Oyster Stout , a slightly heftier take on a Guinness. But Oyster Stout is a draft-only beer, and in the Washington area, you'll have to go to Anne Arundel or Baltimore counties in Maryland to find it on tap. The excellent Dark Starr Stout (again, a draft-only brand) from Starr Hill Brewing Co. in Crozet, Va., doesn't travel beyond central Virginia. The brewery hopes to expand into the Washington area later this year but will lead with its amber ale.

North Coast Brewing Co. in Fort Bragg, Calif., brews two beers roughly in the Irish dry stout mold. Old No. 38 Stout (named for a railroad) is assertively roasty with a spicy, herbal hop finish. Old Plowshare Stout , an organic variant brewed for Whole Foods Market, is full of coffee and bittersweet chocolate flavors. At 5.7 percent alcohol by volume, both are stronger than Guinness.

All of these stouts are brewed year-round and can be enjoyed in any season. Green tie is optional.

Greg Kitsock is editor of the Mid-Atlantic Brewing News and senior editor of American Brewer magazine. He writes about beer once a month for Food and can be reached

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