In this column, we celebrate the best beers our writers have ever enjoyed. But it’s not just about the beer: it’s often just as much about the who, where, or when.
Long ago, a young Irishman clued me in on an essential truth: To really grasp the greatness of Guinness Draught, you must travel to its source. In Ireland, the world-famous stout tastes even more incredible. It’s fresher and creamier — “like an angel pissing on your tonsils,” he said.
He meant this in the best possible way.
We were standing on the stoop of a drab student dormitory, somewhere in London, England. Guinness had become my go-to brew that summer, a major change from the cheap lagers that otherwise defined my undergraduate existence. But I hadn’t yet set foot in Ireland, and the fear of missing out kicked in almost immediately.
In their eternal quest for The Perfect Pint, Guinness fans can be notorious sticklers about quality control: using the right kind of glassware, holding the glass at just the right angle, filling the glass only so high, then letting it rest and allowing enough time for the self-satisfaction to properly steep before taking a single sip.
The idea that Guinness poured in Guinness’s own backyard is vastly superior to the stuff served elsewhere under the same label is another widely held belief. You’ll hear all sorts of explanations, involving everything from pasteurization and proper tap-line maintenance to the challenges of global distribution as well as simple psychology. There’s even a conspiracy theory that suggests Guinness is intentionally withholding its best stuff for domestic consumption while the rest of the world settles for second-rate swill. Researchers have done multiple studies on the phenomenon. A sitting U.S. president has also weighed in on the subject.
That night, during the Irish dude’s sermon on the stoop, was the first time I heard about any of this. Coming from middle America, a part of the world then still recovering from the clear-malt craze, I’d never really been privy to such passionate talk about product integrity, especially with regard to beer.
If nothing else, this Legend of the Locally Sourced Stout proved to be effective word-of-mouth marketing. Encouraged by the Irish guy’s testimonial, some friends and I decided to make our own pilgrimage. The next weekend, we took a train over to Holyhead and boarded a ferry bound for Dublin. As soon as we arrived, we wandered around in search of the first pub we could find.
I don’t remember the name of the place, but I do remember the barmaid: a raven-haired, lily-white lass with thick red lips, mesmerizing blue-green eyes and an especially deft touch with the tap handle. She introduced herself as “Angie.” Thinking back to the Irish fellow’s angelic comment, I took it as a sign.
We sat down and watched patiently as Angie carefully prepared our pints. The first sip was as electrifying as advertised — exceptionally pure and clean, almost like a wholly different brew — and the vibe of the place seemed remarkably joyous for some random summer day. It was barely afternoon, and patrons were already singing. Loudly. We spent the rest of the day carousing with strangers in that mirthful little bar. Every pint Angie poured for us tasted better than the last.
The heady effect didn’t last, however. We patronized many other places that weekend, including the Guinness brewery. The beer was always good, but it never quite matched the same momentous sensation of those first few pints at Angie’s place.