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Now that’s a magical pint

Times Staff Writer

FERGAL MURRAY starts to pour a Guinness. It wouldn’t be true to say a hush has fallen over the pub, but we are paying attention here at Casey’s Irish Bar & Grille in downtown L.A. If anybody knows how to pour a pint, it’s Murray -- he’s the brew master at the Guinness Brewery in Dublin.

Murray is everybody’s archetype of a Dubliner, rugged and curly-haired with an air of wry humor, except that even more than most Irishmen, he’s totally focused on Guinness. Guinness is his life; when he’s in Dublin, he tastes every batch that’s brewed to maintain consistency. When he’s not, it’s because he’s on the road to check out the taps and hoses at bars that serve Guinness around the world and to show “the Pour.”

There is an art to pouring Guinness Draught Stout, and it’s worth knowing, since Guinness is the quasi-official drink of St. Patrick’s Day, coming up Friday. The brewery estimates an average of 150 pints of Guinness will get poured every second of those 24 hours.

And the proper way to pour it is the reverse of how most beers are poured. With a lager or an ale, or even a Guinness Extra Stout (a different style of stout also bottled by Guinness), you should splash a nice, foamy head into your glass to waft the beer’s aroma into the air, then turn the glass at an angle and slide the rest of the beer under the head to keep the carbonation alive.

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Not so with Guinness Draught, which is about creaminess, rather than sparkle.

First you take a pint glass, preferably one that balloons slightly toward the top, a shape that lets the beer form a higher head. While the Casey’s staff scrambles to find a proper Guinness glass, Murray sportingly proceeds with an ordinary straight-sided pint glass.

The next step is to put the glass under the tap -- or the opening of a bottle or can -- at a 45-degree angle. “Let it flow down the side,” Murray says, “never allowing the tap to touch the head.” Pour it about three-quarters full, leaving about an inch from head to rim.

Then you set the glass down for what is known as the “settle.” Technically, Guinness Draught is more nitrogenated than carbonated. Nitrogen is less soluble in water than carbon dioxide, so it forms a smaller, tighter bubble, creating the distinctive cream-white Guinness head. (A number of beers, particularly microbrews, have also followed the nitrogen route in recent years.)

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During the “settle,” tiny bubbles of nitrogen rise in the dark beer, the roiling currents inside the glass producing a shimmering, cascading visual effect at its sides. “The nitrogen is trying to go back into solution, but it can’t because it’s not under pressure anymore,” observes Murray. After a minute, about a third of an inch of head has formed.

Finally, you top up the glass, pouring straight into the head so that it forms a “domed crown” extending a bit higher than the rim. This is the dramatic moment to serve it, with some of those tiny bubbles still struggling to the top, just before it settles into the striking two-tone Guinness look, white on top and nearly black beneath, like a quaffable saddle oxford.

When poured right, this head lasts to the end of the pint. Some bartenders like to “paint” a design on top by dribbling a tiny amount from the tap while moving the glass around under it. “I can do the shamrock,” Casey’s bartender Naomi Schimeck boasts.

Now you drink it. “Drink through the head,” urges Murray, “so you can taste the sweetness behind it.” The creaminess of the head, combined with Guinness’ relatively low acidity, creates the odd illusion that you’re having some kind of rich milkshake-like drink with a sweet palate but a dry finish.

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The Guinness gizmo

FOR nearly 30 years, you could only get this sort of beer at bars using a special foaming nozzle for their taps. Then, in 1988, Guinness invented the “widget,” a spherical gizmo that creates a surge of nitrogen bubbles when a can is opened. In 1999, the company developed a rocket-shaped widget for the bottled version, designed to give a mini surge every time the bottle is tipped, so the beer will have a draft taste. And in the United Kingdom, Guinness recently brought out an even more techno way of stirring up those tiny bubbles -- an electrical gadget called the Surger that bombards a bottle with ultrasonic waves.

This sort of thing makes Guinness a rather scientifically oriented brewery, particularly for one that’s 247 years old. Murray fits right in. Before studying to be a master brewer in 1985, he had joined Guinness as a research chemist -- he had a science degree from Trinity College. Ten years later he was the master brewer, and he stayed on after Guinness merged with the giant beverage firm Grand Metropolitan in 1997 to create Diageo, which owns Smirnoff, Dom Perignon, Cuervo and scores of other brands.

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Guinness drinkers have voted heavily for the nitrogenated version. However, Guinness Extra Stout, the widget-less bottled brew that was the only kind of Guinness Americans knew for decades, is still around.

Guinness was developed during the Colonial period to ship to thirsty British military personnel. To survive the sea voyage, it was given a larger dose of hops and a higher alcohol level. This brew caught on in West Africa, and in 1962 Guinness built a distillery in Nigeria, now the largest market for Guinness after Ireland and the UK. Guinness, says Murray, is brewed in 50 countries. The Guinness in the English, European and American markets is still made in Dublin.

A worldwide beer empire based in Ireland. Well, the brewery’s founder, Arthur Guinness, did think big. When he took over the brewery property in 1759, he negotiated a 9,000-year lease for 45 pounds (about $79) a year.

So what does the landlord think of that deal now?

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“That’s a good question,” says Murray. “In fact, I’ve never even heard of anybody paying. I think the city of Dublin is the landlord, and I’d imagine they’re happy enough.”


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