Bars, Books and Covers

We all know not to judge a book by its cover but is it the same for bars? It depends, of course, on what you’re looking for and one man’s hovel might be another’s castle.

There are some places that will look more inviting than others but it is a matter of taste. I’ll steer away from places with shiny, modern fronts, too much chrome, marble and exposed ducts. Even the decor’s louder than the suited hoorays and heehaws that frequent them.

Doppelganger pubs are not my style, either, y’know, the ones done up as a wild west saloon, a Mexican cantina or, horror of horrors, an Irish pub that’s often as Irish as a flat pint of bitter. As for hipster pubs, well, they do get points for trying hard but those points get subtracted for trying too hard, too.

No, the old fashioned boozer has an unassuming look to it, slightly worn, frayed at the edges but lovingly cared for and quiet and dedicated in the delivery of its product.IMG_3234

The wily Guinness drinker is often the most discerning of pub afficianados. He, or indeed, she, will not be sold on fancy decor, illuminated signs or garden furniture. No, what they want to know is the quality of the pint, how often and how well it’s poured. To determine that they’ll cross any threshold and with a quick sweep of the bar, its full, half drained and empty glasses, they will have taken in all they need to know. And if the pint doesn’t pass that sight test, they’ll never darken that door again.

That said, I broke all those rules the other day when, afflicted by a sudden thirst, I took refuge in a well known city bar famous for its traditional music sessions. It was mid-afternoon, so it wasn’t busy. That was my first mistake. The only person in the bar before me was drinking a bottle of Corona and reading a paper. The barman was working his phone. That wasn’t a good sign.

When he tore himself away from his digital snapchat, I ordered a pint of Guinness. Now a good pint should take as much as 120 seconds for the perfect pour and let’s face it, this chap wasn’t run off his feet and I was certainly not going anywhere in a hurry. Despite that, my pint was delivered with undue haste and slopped (no exaggeration) before me, looking like it had dressed in the dark, was wearing odd socks and hadn’t combed its hair. Indeed, it’s head had a depressed, concave shape. I stared at it with horror, looked at the barman who had already returned to his phone and then turned around, in disgust, without paying for it, let alone drinking it.

Five minutes later, I was sitting in Frank Ryan’s of Queen St and happily, order was restored. The barman, there, poured his pint with dignity, no haste and plenty of respect. And there wasn’t a phone in sight, at least, not while he was looking after business.

The strange thing was, I reflected quietly, in enjoyment of the pint in front of me, was that both pubs, within a short distance of each other and both with reputations as good, traditional houses and a history to match, were as alike as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders; one, all show and little substance, the other, righteous and respectful, if a tad shabby, but who’s quibbling?


The Perfect Pint

IMG_3899IMG_1542IMG_1744You always know a serious Guinness drinker, the minute they walk in the door. First, their priority is not the people they’ve come to meet or where they’ll find a seat. Second, they won’t be too concerned about the surroundings, the bar’s decor or atmosphere. No, what they’re looking for is the state of the pint of Guinness.

They want to know how frequently the Guinness is being poured. They want to know the state of those pints, as in, how well are they being poured.

So let’s say, our man (or woman) walks into your bar. His eyes will sweep the room, table and bar level, although he’ll concentrate on the bar as this is where he (or she) would sit. Why? So they can keep an eye on the pour and the Guinness gets to them as quickly as possible and doesn’t sit around, waiting for someone to deliver it.

I poured my first pint of Guinness in 1966. I was 10 and it was in my uncle’s bar in Sligo town, Co Sligo. Back then, pouring a pint of draught Guinness was an even more complicated affair than it is today. The glass tilt (45°) remains the same. Back then, though, a pint was poured in three stages, compared with two, today. It was an elaborate process, watched with studied attention by my uncle’s regulars. I felt it was like a rite of passage. The second part of the process, then, brought the pour to the top, when the bartender would take a swipe and smooth the creamy head across the top of the glass. A further ‘settling’ ensued. The final ‘topping off’ brought the gleaming, creamy smooth head ‘proud’ of the glass, lending it a mildy elevated dome shape.

So here, according to Guinness Master Brewer, Fergal Murray, are the six stages of pouring a perfect pint of Guinness,

Step One: The Glass

“The bartender takes a dry, clean glass, which should be a 20-ounce tulip pint glass,” Murray says. “The internal aerodynamics of a tulip glass allows the nitrogen bubbles to flow down the sides of the glass, and the contour ‘bump’ in the middle pushes the bubbles back to the center on their way up.”

Step Two: The Angle

“The glass should be held at a 45-degree angle under the tap. The tap faucet should not touch the tulip glass or beer. If you just hold it straight under the faucet, you’ll get a big block of bubbles and a fish eye.”

Step Three: The Pour

“Let the beer flow nice and smoothly into the angled glass and fill it up three-quarters of the way.”

Step Four: The Head

“Let it settle. On the way through the faucet, the beer passes through a five-hole disk restrictor plate at a high speed, creating friction and bringing out nitrogen bubbles. The bubbles are agitated now — they can’t go back into the solution, so they flow down the interior sides and back up the middle — but they can’t escape. So they build this wonderful, creamy head on top. It’s like an architect building a strong foundation.”

Step Five: The Top-Off

“Once it settles, you want to fill up the glass and top it off. You allowed it to settle, you created a domed effect across the top of the pint, and now your head is looking proud over the glass. That’s the perfect vision of the perfect pint.”

Step Six: The First Sip

“You drink with your eyes first. The cosmetic look of the pint is critical to the Guinness experience. We don’t want anybody just putting liquid in a glass. And finally, drink responsibly.”


Now, all this might be dismissed as a whole load of marketing baloney but not if you drink Guinness, particularly in Dublin. Or Ireland. But you can get a bad pint, anywhere. In the end, it depends on the pour.

Take the three pints at the top of this article. The first one was poured in a pub in Roscommon, beside the Shannon river. The second was poured in a Dublin city centre pub, The Long Hall and the third and a ‘bad pour’, was slopped up in a pub that carries the name of the beer and brewery’s founder, Arthur Guinness and stands on the corner of the same street where the famous black beer has been brewed for more than 200 years.

I could say, if you have to ask what’s wrong with it, you’ve no business drinking it or you’ve got what you deserve. But it isn’t what a true pint of Guinness deserves. This pint was poured in a hurry, not allowed to settle and then topped off, badly. Look at the head; it’s flat at the top of the glass.

Which brings us back, neatly, to our friend who walks into a bar scanning the pub for signs of pint pour activity. What’s he looking for?

New pints with good heads, plenty of them and a few, half drunk, that’s what. This will give him most of the information he needs, short of watching the pour, him (or her) self. And the half drunk pint? That can be the real giveaway because, y’see, as every pint drinker will tell you, a good pint, poured well, in the right glass, will hold its head intact for the length of the glass, leaving a trail of concentric circles of residue, right to the end of the glass.