Dark and creamy as coffee from the gods, Guinness Stout is not for everyone. For most beer drinkers, it takes three sips before you can really appreciate the taste.
Well, my first taste doesn’t really count.
It’s Friday night in Ardmore, sometime in the late ’70s and we’re looking for a place where disco isn’t on the juke.
Mark and I stumble into the Erin Pub.
During the school year, the place is a college hangout for kids from Villanova. This is summer, though, and the only drinkers on hand appear to be part of the Main Line contingent of the IRA Senior Auxiliary.
Old guys with missing teeth are leaning up against the bar, eyeing the young newcomers on their turf. One of them is playing spoons on his thigh. Two others are playing shuffleboard.
“These boys look like they could use a stout,” says one.
A pair of pint glasses of the foaming, black brew arrive and two brave fellas go bottoms-up. We sip slowly while the old-timers wait for us to gag. We don’t, but the night is still young.
Gradually we melt into the crowd. The guy with the spoons plays along with an Irish ballad. We laugh and sip and feel at home.
Behind me, though, I hear raised voices. The shuffleboard game seems to be heating up.
“Yes it is!” says Red.
“No way, you’re blind,” says Blue.
“Let’s get an impartial observer,” says Red.
In any taproom, in any city, on any planet, those words – “Let’s get an impartial observer” – should be singularly regarded as an immutable cue to duck. Vanish. Evaporate. Never, under any circumstances – even if the individual soliciting your help is your own dear mother – should a patron in a bar agree to act as “an impartial observer.” You are not merely asking for trouble when you step up as “an impartial observer,” you are sending out an engraved invitation with a return address from Suckerville.
I know this. You know this.
Mark did not know this.
He puts down his pint and steps over to the shuffleboard table.
He’s asked: “Which one’s closer to the edge, red or blue?”
He leans toward the table, adjusts his eyeglasses and squints.
He pauses a second. The spoon guy stops playing. I put down my glass. Mark utters the fateful word.
In a flash, the pub is turned upside down. A fist connects with Red’s jaw. Barstools tumble to the ground. Beer soaks my shirt. I grab Mark by the shoulder and drag him to safety out on Lancaster Avenue.
We leave our pints behind, half full of Guinness Stout.
In the 20 years since that night at the Erin, I’ve met dozens of souls – Irish and otherwise – who shed a tear whenever I tell them that story.
Guinness Stout does that to you. For many, the dry stout is the fullest expression of how a brewer can turn ordinary malt, water, yeast and hops into a celebration of beer. Years before the American craft brew renaissance, a glass of Guinness Stout frequently was the only distinctive non-Pilsner draft you could find.
But despite its huge sales as the nation’s seventh-largest imported beer, the Irish ale has always been a low-key success story.
That’s what makes Guinness’ recent marketing effort such an oddity.
Most beer drinkers discovered the brew through word of mouth, or maybe from its widely read “Book of Records” (reputedly the second-most read tome behind the Bible). But now, Guinness is actually advertising in the Philadelphia region – first with billboards, and now with a $250,000 TV ad campaign.
Ted Engelke, Guinness marketing manager in Philadelphia, said he feels like he’s walking on eggs with this new push.
“Guinness Stout is regarded by a lot of people as a cult beer,” Engelke says. “It’s fun to them because it’s theirs and it hasn’t been spoiled yet.”
But, faced with increasing pressure from other specialty beers, Guinness wants to grow. The problem is you can’t sell Guinness with bikini-clad girls romping the snowy Rockies.
So it’s running low-key 30-second black-and-white ads on the proper way to pour a Guinness – a marvelously arcane topic that is, frankly, a source of pride and care among the stout’s stalwarts.
“There were so many bad pints in the U.S. and Philadelphia because it wasn’t being poured properly,” Engelke said. “So we have a draft specialist whose only job is to visit bartenders to make sure they know how to properly serve our stout.”
If you want to see – and taste – the properly poured Guinness Stout, tonight at 11 is a good opportunity. To mark the 272nd birthday of the brewery’s founder, Arthur Guinness, the company is sponsoring what may be the world’s largest toast, with more than 200,000 people nationwide – including possibly 12,000 in the Philadelphia area – raising a glass to Guinness.
The toast will take place at more than 200 local bars with the focus of action in the vicinity of 20th and Walnut streets, home of the Irish Bards and the Irish Pub.