Our seven month, thirteen country, EU Austerity Drinking Tour continues today with the pint that defines Ireland: Guinness.
Last week’s posts visited the decent (but now defunct) Messrs Maguire Brewery Pub and the bolder (and now international) The Porterhouse. Today, we sell out to the macro-brewer that pushes over 1.7 billion pints a year.
We leave our home-stay in Blackpool late and angry. But now on our hike to Saint Jame’s Gate (Guinness mecca), Dublin’s charm brings us around.
We pop into Ireland’s oldest pub: the Brazen Head. It claims to date back to 1198.
Yes, in 1198 a tavern stood here. But the miniature castle is a bit newer than the Holy Roman Empire (1688…actually). Regardless, the interior sweats with anticipation. Donegal is playing the All-Ireland Football Championship.
But it’s 1:30: no time for charm or football. We need to turn up the scale.
We enter a brick city of beer. Tourists and buses stagger down cobbled streets. Even old shipping tracks gleam with wear.
They are old but silent. Diageo has preserved Guinness’s 19th fabric as if it were the Roman Forum: perfect but sterilized. These roads only function to funnel tourists.
And in we go.
The rotunda feels massive. Escalators, elevators, glass, and blue steel pylons interweave the old with modern. This Eiffel Tower to beer forms a seven story glass big enough for 14.3 million pints. In case you missed the theme.
A questionably original deed sits at center below our feet: enshrined in glass like a saint’s rib. I stop myself from kneeling.
Next, ramps walk us through art spaces that rarefy the beer’s essential ingredients into abstract materialism.
Our occasional guide is a set of video screens showing master brewer: Fergal Murry.
The stout, white-shirted, bespectacled Master Brewer often appears in full-bodied view. He barks enthusiastically and hand-gestures his way through clearly awkward green-screened scenes about beer-making.
We meet a fake painting of Arthur Guinness and a fake chair. Wall plaques glide over 250 years, ignoring ownership issues, buyouts, and monumental expansion.
Then we enter a room where staff, videos, and bright signs walk us through baby-sips of how to taste Guinness.
Hardly begun, we mount another escalator.
Defunct copper mash tuns and iron machines crowd new rooms. Endless videos and interactive artifacts start to muddle how Guinness actually makes beer.
We never see the inside of the factory. Only one motion-activated window demists itself briefly to show the real factory…exterior.
The Wizard won’t let us behind his curtain.
Another escalator finds a room with barrels stacked high.
We almost tear-up reading about a whole civilization of coopers, cartmen, and shippers that the aluminum keg outmoded around 1960. How might Guinness have tasted, warm, breathing, and living a different life in each cask?
All this old stuff stops instilling respect for heritage or even nostalgia. Instead, I wonder at what we have gained by demanding that a beer taste consistent and, um, not kill us (how dull).
A hall on shipping is hung with white plastic ghosts of trains, trucks, boats, planes, and carts from every era. I try not to cry.
Then we find what really matters to Guinness: image.
The wooden pint and museum glorifying advertising confirms this.
Let’s be honest. Guinness is not a beer. It is a brand. It is a package that we buy filled with a bounty of signifiers. We drink its Irishness, its heritage, its harp, its shamrocks, its Joyce, its pub culture, its potato famine, its Catholicism, its Patty’s Day, its rebellion.
Also, Guinness is not lager. It is the alternative. It is not wimpy. It is gendered as hard-working, manly product, the owning of which proves we have matured (“Guinness gives you strength” right?). Even coming here and blogging about it, makes me different. Like drinking red instead of white. Coffee instead of tea.
At least that’s what they tell us. It’s also what we tell ourselves, so the world makes sense.
Philosophy set aside, we take the stairs to the Guinness Gravity Bar.
Massive, wide, and low, this 360 degree “head” of the 14.3 million pint-glass gleams in white, steel, and glass. U2 pumps up the throng of people: mostly middle-aged men.
We grab our pints and a mirror table.
I appreciate that Guinness admits its modernity. This bar doesn’t pretend to be a classic pub. No wood, no nooks, nor animal heads can be found. It knows it is a skyscraper showcase for the latest in mass-manufactured product.
The huge factory surrounds and reminds us of this.
Beyond, the view of Dublin, and its clash of ancient and new buildings, its bustle that runs to the sea adds context.
After three hours of museum, the beer tastes refreshing. Our thirst delights at its chill. We drink it properly, sipping through to avoid the bitter head.
Here, today, we note its acid. The bitterness is present but light, alcohol minor, weight middling. It tastes fresh, balanced, and clean like mild tap coffee, cocoa nib, and citrus pith sweetened by wildflower honey. The length is medium and pleasant. If Guinness is not the definition of a good quality (3 of 5), monstrously produced beer, then nothing is.
We look down and fear the walk ahead.
Stepping past the bar, the identity divide shows itself in the dead soldiers:
Who comes to Dublin, goes through hours of a meandering, bewildering Guinness museum, and orders tea? Or takes two sips of beer and leaves?
Kids maybe. But my guess is a few couldn’t swallow the heavy pill yet. I hear them claim to dislike the bitterness, but it’s out of habit. They’re not dark beer people they say. But it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. As if beer types and people are predestined pairs. Just as my drinking it is supposed to make me manlier or align me with all things Irish.
It’s all in our heads.
We leave with respect for Diageo keeping Guinness in Dublin and for making a solid drink at such a scale. The grounds lack life. The Guinness experience is a ridiculous shadow play. You won’t learn how they make beer. But it distills the basics, and reveals much about brand control.
Niggles aside, enjoying a good pint while sitting atop Dublin was priceless.
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