Saturday, November 15, 2008

Irish insight

Next year, Ireland’s legendary stout celebrates its 250th birthday. What better way for fans to celebrate their favourite beer’s birthday than to drop in at the home of Guinness.

Held against the light, the pint of draught has a rich ruby shade, topped with a creamy head.

I caught a whiff of lovely roasted caramel. Taking a gulp, I let the crisp, smooth and creamy drink roll around my tongue. It tasted like a mouthful of roasted coffee beans and dark chocolate with a hint of sweetness.

Gravity Bar, on the seventh floor of the Guinness Storehouse, is a great spot to savour chilled Guinness draught and enjoy the Dublinscape.

Absolutely delectable! Surprisingly, the bitter taste that Guinness is notorious for was barely noticeable.

“First-time Guinness drinkers tend to see the dark colour as intimidating. They’d cringe and take small sips,” explained Mark McGovern, the media relations executive at Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, Ireland.

“You’ll unintentionally drink the ‘head’ which is the bitter part.”

“The trick is to bring the glass to your mouth, block the head of the pint with your lip, get that ‘moustache’ and take a gulp,” added McGovern.

“Resist drinking the head until your last sip. It’ll cleanse your palate and have you craving for another pint.”

Trinity College, Ireland’s premier university

Truth be told, I wasn’t a Guinness fan. Like many Malaysians, my first encounter with the stout was a jolting taste of the strong and bitter Foreign Extra Stout (FES), one of the variants of Guinness sold in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean.

But in a recent media familiarisation trip to the home of Guinness in Dublin, I discovered there was so much more to Guinness. Plus the fact that 10 million glasses of Guinness are downed each day around the world.

Our whirlwind four-day visit, with a bunch of American journalists, took us to St James’ Gate Brewery where the legendary stout was first brewed in 1759. Our group got a brewery tour with Guinness ambassador and head brewmaster Fergal Murray to find out the “secret” behind the famous stout.

Since 1972, the brewery has been closed to the public due to safety and security reasons. However, Guinness lovers the world over flock to the Guinness Storehouse — a seven-storey building offering a multimedia journey into the history and making of Guinness, a flagship retail shop, restaurant, bar and an archive centre.

The man behind Guinness

St Mary’s Church, built in the 1600s, now a restaurant and bar.

Brewed in 49 countries worldwide and sold in over 150 countries today, Guinness’ humble origins started from one man, Arthur Guinness.

Born in 1725 near County Kildare, Arthur picked up brewing skills from his father. In 1759, at the age of 34, he set out to try his luck in the capital city of Dublin.

At that time, Dublin’s brewing industry was suffering because English beer was taxed less severely than the Ireland-produced beers. Undaunted, the visionary man signed a 9,000-year lease at an annual rent of £45 (RM253) on a small, disused and ill-equipped brewery which sits on a four-acre (1.6ha) plot of land in the heart of Dublin.

In the early 18th century, a beer called Porter, using roasted barley, was getting popular in Ireland. Originally brewed by Londoner Ralph Harwood in 1722, the dark beer was a hit with the working class porters of Covent Garden and Billingsgate, hence the name ‘Porter’.

Arthur started his business brewing ale but in the 1770s, he started brewing this new dark English beer. His Porter was a best-seller.

One of Guinness’ “secret” ingredients is its special yeast. The yeast is so precious that a small reserve culture is kept under lock and key lest something happens to the main supply. Visitors to the Storehouse can see the original vault from the 1800s where the yeast was kept.

Arthur married an heiress, Olivia Whitmore, and had 21 children. Perhaps there’s some truth in the famous ad that says, “Guinness is Good for you!” But only 10 of his children survived into adulthood.

When he died in 1803, Arthur left a big fortune (at that time) of about £23,000 and a flourishing business that was later passed down for six generations.

In 1801, the predecessor of modern-day FES called the West India Porter was brewed with a higher hop content to withstand long sea journeys (hops are a natural preservative).

The remains of Ardscull Church where Arthur Guinness is buried.

The first batch was shipped to the Caribbean in the 1820s. By 1930, one out of every 10 men in Dublin earned a living from St James’ Gate, which offered generous wages and free daily pints. As our city guide says: “A man employed by Guinness was considered a good catch at that time.”

The Draught Guinness was introduced only in 1959 and the first breweries outside of the British Isles opened in African countries in the 1960s. Guinness first arrived on Malayan shores in 1964, then known as Ginis Setaut, a literal translation from Malay.

The first Guinness brewery in Malaysia opened in 1965. (Source: The 250-year Quest for the Perfect Pint by Bill Yenne)

Today, Guinness is part of Diageo, the world’s leading premium drinks company with brands like Smirnoff, Irish Walkers and Baileys Original Irish Cream, with operations in 180 countries.

The interior of St Patrick’s Cathedral, the largest cathedral in Ireland. — LEONG SIOK HUI and courtesy of GUINNESS STOREHOUSE LTD

The Guinness family is still a shareholder in the company. And the St James’ Gate brewery now encompasses a 64-acre (26ha) piece of land in the heart of Dublin.

The Storehouse

Our experience started at the hallowed ground for Guinness lovers, the Storehouse, a popular tourist attraction in Dublin. Here, visitors learn what goes into the making of each pint of Guinness, pick up beer appreciation at the Tasting Laboratory and pore through artifacts and books on Guinness.

You can stock up on souvenirs, from posters to beach towels in the retail store.

Dating back to 1904, the building was originally used as a fermentation house. In the 1950s, the wooden tuns (large vessels made of oak or pine to hold fermenting beer) were replaced by aluminium ones. In December 2000, the building was re-modelled into the Storehouse.

Guinness with your grub

Before our brewery tour, we were shipped off to the Brewery Bar for a hearty lunch of Guinness-laced food paired with pints of Guinness, of course.

Guinness’s complex flavours are superb with rich stews, roasted meats and hearty fare like braised beef. Most people opt for the famous Guinness Beer Stew, a concoction of diced beef, onions, celery, leeks, carrots, mixed herbs and beef stock topped with a pint of Guinness Draught.

A non-meat eater, I scarfed down the scrumptious beer bread slathered with butter and a spinach and wild mushroom quiche.

“My favourite pairing is Guinness with oysters and shellfish,” confesses Murray who joined us for lunch.

You can enjoy the fresh oysters with a dash of Tabasco sauce and squeeze of lemon. The light and delicate salty flavours are enhanced by the strong roast and bitter flavours of the FES.

The Star