Toasting the perfect pint:
Is Guinness God in America?
By Gretchen Giles
THIS IS A TERRIBLE Irish joke, but the Irish tell it with a kind of terrible pride: An Irishman, when given three wishes, asks first for a never-ending pint of Guinness; asks second for a never-ending pint of Guinness; and makes his third and final wish for a never-ending pint of Guinness. Without thinking to regret the wasted opportunities of the first two wishes, he lives on in a remote happy haze of never-ending pints.
Alicia Shiel can probably understand this. At least, Shiel could if the wisher were supping from what the Guinness corporation terms “the perfect pint.” Because for Shiel, a product controller for Guinness, the mother’s-milk quality of this national brew has been a part of her life ever since she was a little girl growing up in Dublin.
“You never share a glass of beer,” avers Shiel, standing in Sonoma’s Murphy’s Irish Pub, where she arrived to test proprietor Larry Murphy’s dispensing system in preparation for last month’s Guinness-sponsored bid to break the world’s record for the most people toasting at one time. Guinness paid for notaries to be posted at pubs throughout the world for this Feb. 27 event. Last year, some 50,304 people raised glasses of the black stuff and shouted “Slaínte!” in unison. The numbers for this year have not yet been finally tabulated.
“People are very fussy about their beer,” Shiel continues serenely, “and kids at home will dip their fingers into the foam at the top of the glass–my father used to kill me about that one. And it is like, ‘Don’t touch–get your hands off my pint.'”
Created in 1759 at St. James Gate, Dublin, by Sir Alfred Guinness, this beer came to America with the first wave of immigrants channeling through Ellis Island. “They couldn’t live without [Guinness],” states Shiel. “The Irish immigrants came out and brought the stuff with them and their families. Or,” she laughs, “brought the Guinness with them and then sent the money home to their families.”
Creamy, frothy, black, and with a corporeal heaviness that dictates pouring the stuff in two parts and letting it settle like an exotic coffee, Guinness is actually a light beer, according to Shiel. Light in calories and in texture (its easy touch on carbonation makes quaffing Budweiser seem like drinking a steak), it is also the perfect accompaniment to cakes, cookies, tarts, pies, trifles: desserts. “It’s excellent with desserts,” Shiel says sweetly, “and seafood. Oysters and Guinness. You can drink it with anything.”
“If you like,” she grimaces.
But all is not rosy. We have brought along a shill, an Irishman named O’Keeffe who contends that no matter how strictly American barkeeps attend to the particulars–carbon dioxide, temperature (the perfect pint pours out at between 39 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit), glass shape and height (tulip-shaped and 20 ounces), and freshness–the Guinness here just doesn’t taste the same as at home. “It doesn’t travel,” he avers. “It doesn’t even travel to the Arans [Western Ireland islands].”
“I hear this all day long,” Shiel sighs good-naturedly. “And all I can say is that if you take a can of Coke today and put it in your back pocket and get on a plane and go to Ireland, and open that can in Shannon airport–it’s the exact same can of Coke.”
“It tastes more like Murphy’s,” O’Keeffe returns with an evil grin, referring to another brand of Irish beer. “And you don’t want to hear that.”
“I disagree,” Shiel says flatly, “and it’s not just because of my job. Honestly.”
Larry Murphy explains that Guinness is his No. 1 seller and that his pub may be the biggest seller of Guinness in the county, ensuring that his brew is fresh. Shiel passes him on his inspection with a whispered reminder that his glasses aren’t all regulation size. And then she turns back with a smile.
“The Irish,” she says, “are very proud of their Guinness.”
O’Keeffe raises his glass. “Actually,” he says in a low voice. “This is pretty good.”
From the March 12-18, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.