Although we do not advise going out to a bar — any bar! — tomorrow, the coming of St. Patrick’s Day makes our thoughts turn to beer, Irish beer in particular. At our staff meeting yesterday, we wondered aloud how much difference a proper pouring of Guinness makes to the finished product. Some of us thought that a Guinness from a skilled, attentive bartender has a much nicer mouthfeel than one poured without thought. Most can probably agree on that. But what really makes a great pint of Guinness, and where can you get one in New York?
The brewing company itself suggests a six-step process: Clean the glass, place glass at 45-degree angle, pour beer three-fourths of the way up, allow to settle, top off so that a nice head forms, and drink. But other factors also make a difference — like how clean the lines are, how high the turnover is, the proportion of nitrogen and carbon dioxide used to pressurize the keg, and the temperature the beer is served at. (Guinness recommends about 44 degrees, but some like it warmer than that.) All this is meant to result in a creamy textured dry stout that’s crowned by a fat head. The tiny nitrogen bubbles are all-important, creating volume without being sharp or bubbly, the way that most carbon-dioxide-carbonated beers are.
So today, we stopped in two well-regarded Irish pubs, watched each bartender’s pour technique, and tried to figure out which was the better pint. It was a hard job, but someone had to do it.
Our first stop was Swift’s Hibernian, where the door was flung open to the sunshine, and a young woman was manning the bar. There was only one other customer in the place, and the Irish owner was bustling around, hanging decorations for tomorrow and changing out the beers on tap.
When we asked for a Guinness, the barkeep took a tulip-shaped pint glass (the correct choice, according to purists) gave it a quick water rinse (not the correct choice, according to purists), and poured the beer three-fourths of the way up the glass, at a 45-degree angle. She gently set the glass down to let it settle, and then filled it almost to the top, letting it settle again–an extra step. Before serving, she topped it up slightly, resulting in a wonderfully velvety off-white head that domed just a bit over the rim of the glass.
What we really liked about this Guinness was the fact that the head was rich, creamy and hardy — it followed the beer level down the glass, so that each sip contained a bit of the foam. The beer had just the barest tickle of carbonation, only noticeable if you let it sit on your tongue. It went down easily, somehow both light and substantial, with a bitter finish. It was served cool, not too cold, and cost $6.
Up at Molly’s Shebeen, every bar stool was taken, and several tables as well. The place opened in 1960, and is dark and comfortable, with sawdust on the floor, a fireplace, and at least every other patron speaking in an Irish brogue. The bartender was an older Irish man with a neat white mustache, cracking jokes about what tomorrow will bring. “This is the calm before the storm!” he exclaimed. He took out an imperial pint glass with a slight flare at the top — not quite the gentle tulip shape advocated by the brewer. He turned the glass to 45-degrees and poured until the glass was about three-fourths full, and let it settle. Then he poured again, almost to the top, and let it rest again — that extra step that was also used at Swift’s. Then he topped up the head, and presented the glass.
This was also a very nice pint of beer, with a creamy, latte-colored head. But there seemed to be a touch more prickly carbonation going on, and the texture of the beer felt more watery on the tongue than its counterpart at Swift’s. The head was a bit less lasting, leaving a bare spider-webbing of residue rather than clinging rings. The temperature, as at Swift’s, was cool not frigid, and it cost $7.
Both Swift’s and Molly’s are estimable institutions, great places to wile away an evening with a beer and a friend, or a beer and a book. But if we have to get down to it, the Guinness pour at Swift’s resulted in a better beer. Maybe it was the weird power of the tulip glass, or maybe the mix of gas pressurizing its keg. Whatever the reason, wait until Thursday, and then go have yourself one.
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