A trip to the bottom of the glass

It is one of the oldest forms of sustenance, a staple credited with warding off disease, supplying needed carbohydrates, and providing a reason for the cultivation of grain. Bread? No, what we are talking about here is beer.

Indeed, if Andrew and I would had looked more closely at the Code of Hammurabi while at the Louvre in Paris, we might have noticed that this “document” (it is a giant rock) which dates from around 1772 BC, includes provisions for what to do with unscrupulous merchants who water down their beer and sell short portions in return for cash: forcibly drown them (watch out Coors Light).

So it was with a sense of history, a need for sustenance, and in hopes of warding off disease that Andrew and I set out to sample some of Ireland’s finest alcohol at their sources – the Guinness Factory at St. James Gate and the Old Jameson Distillery in Dublin. After this education, the rest of the experiences of Ireland that followed can be best seen through the rich ruby-red color of a pint of Guinness.

Water is the soul of beer, making up more than 90% of the volume of the finished product. It is a local ingredient, and is responsible for the fact that some regions produce certain types of beer better than others (Dublin’s hard water, sourced from the Wicklow Mountains, is good for making stouts like Guinness). Brewers are particular about their water.

“Are you F*****D?!” roared a craggy-faced Irishman as he swept up to the bar at O’Donoghue’s, where Andrew and I had just taken our seats. Taken aback by this frontal assault of friendliness (especially after a steady diet of Parisian disregard), we mumbled an inadequate reply about having just arrived. This man, who we later found out hailed from Cork (“Bastard needs a f*****g passport just to get to DUH-blun,” according to the bartender), was a perfect example of what Ireland is all about – pubs, friends, beer, stories – an open culture that shares its successes and burdens together over a pint.

Barley is malted by soaking it in water, allowing it to germinate, and then roasting it dry. This malt is ground into grist, added to the water, and warmed to release the fermentable sugars that are the basic fuel for the fermentation process.

There is a sickly-sweet atmosphere that comes from staying in a hostel. The sickly mostly goes without saying (consider this math: 10 twenty-somethings living in one room with one bathroom). As for the sweet, these modern-day tenements are a haven for like-minded (beer-minded) young people to meet, make friends, and explore a new place together. Like anything else, if you compress enough of some element together in a closed environment, you can’t be surprised when it goes nuclear.

Andrew and I stayed at the Times Hostel, right next to Trinity College, and while we didn’t have much privacy, we did have a great time, meeting some new friends and sharing (a few too) many pints together in the bars in Dublin.

Our big night out consisted of the all-too-typical trashy pub crawl that seemed to transform each bar it touched (even the one billed as famous for “traditional Irish music”) into one of Faneuil Hall’s finest bro-festivals. But with each bar and each new infusion of Guinness it mattered less and less, as the colored lights, the sounds of the streets, and the voices of our new friends mashed together into the “significant, elemental, and profound” experience that leaves only its most visceral elements on our consciousness the next day.

And yet, when that next day dawned, all we could say was – “that was worth it, hangover and all.”

Hops are not an essential element of the fermentation process. Instead, they contribute a bitter flavor that balances out the sweetness of the malt. Hops are typically added during the boiling process before the almost-beer is chilled and sent to the fermentation tanks.

To provide some contrast to our boozy hostel experience, Andrew and I set out to test ourselves against the local links, a short tight course in Donabate. The golf course was gorgeous, set right along the Irish Sea, and within sight of Lambay Island and the cliffs of Howth.

The course was like a good old Irish face – shaped and pitted by the sun, wind, rain, and tides into a craggy landscape that spoke volumes without the need for words. The narrow fairways were flanked by acres of utterly impenetrable thatch, littered with pot bunkers. It was truly man versus nature – the typical golfing battle of the thinking mind against the wind, rain, and self, mirrored in the scenery as the manicured fairways clashed with the unruly abundance of the deep rough.

By the time it was over, we had learned the truth of Lee Trevino’s summation of the difficulties of links golf. “At 15, we put down the bag to hunt for the ball, found the ball, but lost the bag.” And while we were able to return our rental bags, we left a few dozen out there for the golf gods.

Yeast is the soul of a beer. It is the most proprietary part of the process, imparting key flavor notes as it consumes the sugar and transforms it into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Each brewery guards its strain of yeast as its most treasured trade secret. A culture of the Guinness yeast is stored in a vault in the office of the master brewer in case anything happens to production yeasts.

As we listened to the story of the great brands of Irish drink culture, I was surprised by both how similar and how different they were from the stories that I had heard in America.

A half dozen visits to the Harpoon and Sam Adams breweries have left the basic beer story a rote script (“the malt is ground and headed to release the fermentable sugars…”). The story here was still the same – water plus malt plus hops plus yeast equals beer. Even making whiskey follows a surprisingly similar narrative (with Jameson, we still see water plus barley; the only real difference is in the concentration of the alcohol through distillation).

Yet there was something different in these two temples to Bacchus – scale and history. Both brands date to the late 1700s. And even at their outset, their founders had a sense of purpose that transcended simply filling a market niche. They were out to master a craft, and the scope of their ambitions knew no bounds. Arthur Guinness had the gall to sign a 9,000-year lease for his property at St. James Gate. John Jameson built the largest whiskey distillery in the world in Dublin. The footprints of these two men still loom large over the Irish industry even 250 hundred years later – a fact evidenced in Guinness’s seven-story temple to the creation of the perfect pint and Jameson’s stylized video of the whiskey-making process.

Yet the proof, as always, is in the pudding. And with this pudding, we could only echo Guinness’s current master brewer – “What a rich flavor!”

Truly Olympians of their craft.



One thought on “A trip to the bottom of the glass

  1. How about ascending the glass tower above Guinness? Wonka-esque, no?

    I like the parallels to Sam and Harpoon. Peck and I just spent the weekend at Harpoon’s Vermont location – a trip I think we should try to make this fall come the foliage…

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