In Search Of A Perfect Pint


In my search for the perfect pint of Irish stout, Colin Owens took me to a pub basement. Owens is a "draught specialist" for Maryland and the District of Columbia. He is 25 years old and one of a handful of Irishmen the Guinness Import Co. is dispatching to some 20 cities in the United States to encourage American tavern keepers to serve stout the way it is served in Ireland.

While the tips offered by these lads-of-the-tap apply to most draft beers, Colin and his colleagues concentrate on advising tavern keepers how to pour the perfect pint of Guinness stout. This is the black brew with the white top that, like the soul of an Irish poet, can be both dark and surprisingly sweet.

Thanks to years of tradition and no small amount of clever marketing, a pint of Guinness is regarded as an Irishman's favorite beverage. James Joyce, one of many Irish writers fond of the stout, once suggested that "The Free, the Flow, the Frothy Freshener!" replace "Guinness is Good For You" as the official slogan of the brew. That, as far as can be told, pretty much ended Joyce's career in beer advertising.

The secret to pouring a perfect pint of draft stout, Colin told me, largely lies in "the pipes," the lines that carry the brew from the keg to the tap at bar and into the glass.

Since the pipes mainly lie in a pub's basement, that is where Colin took me. I went to the basement of Mick O'Shea's, a Charles Street pub formerly known as McGinn's. There I looked at the pipes, actually lengths of plastic tubing. I shivered as I stood in "a cold box," a refrigerated basement room that cools the kegs that feed the pipes.

The suggested serving temperature of stout is 39-45 degrees, said Colin, who has been known to stick an instant-read thermometer into his stout. While I was in the basement I also looked at the gauges on a silver tank holding a mixture of gases -- 75 percent nitrogen and 25 percent carbon dioxide. This, I learned, is the preferred propellant to send stout shooting from the basement to the bar.

O'Shea's, Colin told me, uses the mixed gas, as does Dougherty's on the edge of Bolton Hill and J. Patrick's in Locust Point. These pubs serve the stout at the right temperature and regularly have the pipes and draft spigot cleaned. These are some of the Maryland pubs that have received certificates from Colin declaring that they pour a perfect pint.

Colin has no punitive power. He cannot, for instance, order Dublin to stop supplying stout to an ill-pouring pub. He relies on persuasion. In his words, he tries to "transfer the enthusiasm" he feels about serving a proper pint. At $3 a glass and up, Guinness is expensive, or "dear," as the Irish would say -- a fact Colin notes in his pitch to pub owners. At such prices, drinkers expect perfection, he says.

The main obstacle to draft reform in Maryland, in Colin's estimation, is cramped basements. The basements of many Maryland pubs are so small that the owners don't have room to set up the proper pipelines. Lately, this problem has been compounded by the growth in popularity of draft beers, which means that more brands of beer are competing for a few pipes.

In Ireland, Colin said, most beer is served on draft, and pubs are built with large basements, many of them designed so that a deliveryman can easily roll kegs off a truck and down to a cellar.

Some American pubs with cramped basements have set up supplemental tap systems set behind the bars. In these systems, the beer line runs from the keg, through a chest filled with ice, and then connects to a tap. The temperature variations in such a system can result in a glass of beer with too much foam, Colin said.

Finally, I saw the correct way to draw a perfect pint of stout from a barroom tap. This was demonstrated by Chuck Briedenbach, a bartender at Claddagh, a neighborhood pub in Canton that Colin and I visited after leaving O'Shea's. Chuck used a slow, two-step process that Colin referred to as "building a pint of Guinness."

Chuck began by holding the glass at a 45-degree angle. Tilting the glass, Colin told me, prevents large, unsightly bubbles called fisheyes from rising to the head of the beer. As the glass began to fill, Chuck moved it to an upright position. When the glass was about three-quarters full, he turned off the tap. The white head of the stout rose to the top of the glass. This process, Colin told me, is called cascading, and is an important part of the perfect-pint ritual.

After a one- or two-minute delay, the glass was topped off with another shot of stout. The creamy head on this perfect pint was 1/2 to 3/4 inches high, and rose slightly above the top of the glass.

As a fancy touch, a bartender might "draw" the image of shamrock in the head by using a thin stream of stout from the tap.

Pub date: 3/17/96

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