Stout for Spring
By Julie Johnson
In Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day is a day to attend mass, enjoy local parades, and go on family outings. On these shores, March 17th has become the date for Irish expatriates to affirm their heritage, and for the rest of us to indulge in the sentimental fantasy of wishing we were Irish, too. Somehow this takes the weird form of dyeing cheap lager green, then drinking too much of it.
If you want to hoist a beer to honor your Irish ancestors (or pretend for a day that you have some), stout is the beverage of Ireland. In an Irish pub, you’ll find about half the patrons enjoying this opaque, black ale all year-round. With its low alcohol content (roughly the same as a Budweiser), a stout is the perfect beverage for a convivial night with friends and conversation.
The name Guinness is synonymous with stout. The Dublin giant, founded by Arthur Guinness in 1759, is the source of the name stout for this style of beer (formally known as Irish dry stout). Transplanted Irishmen and women pine for the perfectly poured glass of Guinness, said to be at its best in Dublin, and even tastier the closer the pub is to the
But this longed-for pint—inky black, topped with a pale tan head the consistency of lightly whipped cream—is a new wrinkle in the brewery’s nearly 260-year history. Technical innovation (and deft marketing by Guinness) has revised the image of a stout that Irish drinkers at home and stout lovers overseas now think of as solidly “traditional.”
Modern Irish stouts owe their characteristic silky texture to the invention of a nitrogen-driven system to dispense the beer, as opposed to the carbon dioxide-driven systems used to pour other draft beers. Unlike CO2, which is a by-product of fermentation, nitrogen does not occur naturally in beer; it has to be added.
In the 1950s, researchers at Guinness discovered that nitrogen forced into a keg of beer would, like carbon dioxide, protect the beer from the damaging effects of oxygen. But nitrogen also produced much smaller bubbles and resulted in a rich, silky texture and a smooth, round flavor.
The influence of nitrogen on stout was so influential that it launched two different trends. First, nitro-keg became the standard for all Irish stout on draft. Breweries started using the nitrogen dispensing system for other beer styles, as well. To this day, enthusiasts love the velvety texture and creamy head a nitro-dispense delivers. Although detractors complain that the blanket of nitrogen blocks aroma and mutes flavor, when it comes to stout, the roasty, almost chocolatey character of stout shines through.
Although nitro-kegs took over pubs, for a time the bottled version consumed at home retained its pre-nitro character. Then, thanks again to Guinness researchers, enter the widget: a little device that could replicate the nitrogen tapping system in cans and bottles. When a chilled container of beer is opened, a capsule containing the correct mix of nitrogen and carbon dioxide creates the tiny bubbles and creamy texture. To call the resulting pour “draft in a can” isn’t the oxymoron it first seems.
In 2003, fascinated British drinkers who dissected empty Guinness Draught cans to understand their secret voted the widget the greatest technological invention of the previous 40 years, beating out both the internet and cloning.
But although the widget allows a stout drinker to enjoy a “proper” pint at home, this only recreates a small part of the Irish pub experience, which typically offers welcoming ambiance and lively chat, facilitated by good food and drink, and perhaps some music. The social aspect of a good night out is important enough to merit its own name in Irish: craic.
To share in this experience—whether on March 17th or not—look for an Irish bar that prizes good cheer over the Kiss-Me-I’m-Irish antics. Seek out a patient bartender who takes the necessary minutes to bring a pint of stout to perfection. Shun the hot wings and nachos that may have crept onto the menu and opt for the oysters—a surprisingly good pairing with stout—or a hearty stew.
Then greet your neighbor, and settle in for a leisurely evening, stout in hand.