Anthony Gladman asks why we have to hang around for a pint of Guinness, and other faffy bar-top rituals
Thursday 20 June 2019
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Lost + Found
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If you're getting your round in, and you or one of your mates is on the Guinness, pub etiquette demands you order the black stuff first. This is because unlike most other beers behind the bar Guinness comes with a ritual attached: the two-step pour. Done properly this should take 119.5 seconds, but I won't tell anyone if you call it two minutes.
For those who aren't in the know, here is the process from start to finish. Take a clean glass (Guinness branded if you please) and hold it at a 45 degree angle beneath the tap. It should be close to but not touching the tap. Pull the tap handle all the way down towards you and set the beer flowing. Fill the glass up to the harp logo, slowly straightening it as you go, all the time being careful not to let the tap touch the beer in the glass. Then place it to one side and let the beer settle. This can take a while. To free up the tap for more pouring some pubs will have special settling trays on the bar upon which glasses should be placed with their branding facing out towards the customer (natch). The thirsty ones can then watch in quiet fascination as a wave of falling bubbles works its paradoxical way up the side of the glass. Once this is complete hold the glass upright underneath the tap and push the tap away from you, towards the customer. Top up the pint until the head rises just above the rim of the glass. Some purists will say you should again let the beer settle completely before handing it to the punter. Others will probably tell you they've waited long enough already and the queue's now three deep so you'd better get moving.
That's a lot of faff for a pint of beer. Does Guinness think it's better than the rest of us or something? I spoke to Padraig Fox, General Manager of the Open Gate Brewery Experience at Guinness's Storehouse Brewery in Dublin, about the origins of all this ceremony.
"Pre-1959 Guinness stout was mainly available in bottles," says Fox. Even in pubs, Guinness would usually have been served in bottles filled directly from the cask. However, some publicans offered a draught version. "This was dispensed from an elaborate system of a high cask on the bar and a low cask under the bar," Fox explains. "It was complex and time-consuming for the publican, and, because skill was needed to mix the pressurised beer from one cask with flat beer from another, it was extremely difficult to maintain consistency and control quality. Technically, this was a two part pour, as beer from two different casks was mixed by the skilled barman."
That sounds even worse than what we go through now. And what if your barman wasn't all that skilled? It doesn't bear thinking about.
The birth of nitro stouts
Thankfully for Guinness they had in their in-house R&D team a mathematician turned brewer named Michael Ash. He had been working on the problem of how to serve Guinness on draught for some time. He knew that using carbon dioxide alone, as was common with most beers, wouldn't work with Guinness — which would just fizz all over the place. Eventually he hit upon the idea of using a mixture of carbon dioxide and nitrogen.
He observed the two gases had opposing behaviours within the beer: carbon dioxide formed large bubbles that would try to escape from the liquid; the nitrogen formed small bubbles that stayed in the liquid. Ash found that using this mixture of gases meant each bubble gradually dissolved into the beer as it went up the glass. This held the beer together during the pour and created a very stable head. Thus the draught Guinness we know today was born, and released into the world in 1959 to celebrate the brewery's bicentenary.
This new way of serving Guinness led to the two-part pour we recognise today, explains Fox. "The addition of nitrogen as well as CO2 to the dispensing systems required a new skill to ensure that the head on the pint was served correctly. The two-part pour allowed for a consistency of head height and became part of the Guinness ritual ever since. For bar staff, the two-step pour ensures that no matter where in the world, a consistent pint of Guinness is served every time, with the added benefits of perfect taste and visual presentation."
You may have noticed that the idea of branding and presentation has come up a lot. The pouring ritual has become so iconic that Guinness is probably known for that more than the flavour. The marketing often focuses on the pour itself as a sign of quality: 'good things come to those who wait'. Marketing matters. Research has shown that one-third of customers approach the bar with no idea of what they're going to order. It's often a beer's reputation, its image, that wins the dithering drinker over within the few seconds it takes for them to form a decision.
Guinness is not the only drink to have a ritual attached. Czech beers come with four distinct pours, each resulting in a differing amount of head in the glass. Grodziskie, the smoked wheat beer from Poland, also demands to be served just so. There's Berliner Weisse and it's flavoured syrups. Asturian cider in Spain poured from high above your head and caught (you hope) in a glass held at hip height. The Catalan porron, held high to pour drink directly into the drinker's mouth (again, you hope). The yard of ale: was there ever a time when this wasn't more about a naff 'stout yeoman of the bar' stunt than the beer held within?
And if you think beer's getting a bit crazy, just wait until you look at spirits. In Dutch *kopstoot* (headbutt) bars they serve genever, a juniper spirit, which is traditionally poured until it overflows onto the bar. Patrons then take their first sip with their hands behind their back. Then there is *la fée verte*, absinthe. Proper *belle-époque* boozehounds know that to serve absinthe correctly requires a special slotted spoon supporting a sugar cube through which chilled water must be dripped with Proustian slowness. Not Proustian in that it brings back memories. More in the way that his books are huge, and turgid, and take forever to wade through. Anyway, I digress. We love all this codified behaviour around booze, don't we? Sambuca? Set it on fire! Tequila? Fetch the salt and lemon wedges!
The theatre of preparation is part of the reason why we enjoy cocktails so much. Some of this rigmarole is necessary; the bartender is creating a drink from a variety of separate elements which must be correctly combined. This takes time and can seem like an arcane ritual to the uninitiated. But there's certainly an element where this is taken beyond the merely functional. Bartenders play up to this, adding flourish and theatrical touches. That spin of the shaker cup before placing it on the counter doesn't add to the drink's flavour. Not unless you think it does. And you don't even need to acknowledge that consciously for it to have an effect. Be warned: this is a slippery slope to the Tom Cruise bottle-flinging world of flair bartending, which turns making a drink into a circus skills display. (Have you noticed it's almost always overconfident young men dressed like shit magicians who get into this?)
There's something else at play here besides a bit of fun. The wait for your cocktail or your nitro stout plays into the psychology of delayed gratification. Anything that builds up anticipation will subtly affect your enjoyment of the drink. If you think it will be good before you drink it, you're more likely to enjoy it. So make mine a Guinness, make sure they let it settle, and for Pete's sake order it before everything else.
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