I can pour what the guys who handle marketing for Guinness call the "perfect pint." I can take a cool, clean, dry, Guinness-branded glass and hold it under the tap at a 45-degree angle. I can pull the handle forward until it's horizontal and fill the glass all the way up to the harp logo located ¾ of the way up the side. I can even wait precisely 119.5 seconds to "let the surge settle" before pushing the tap handle back top the glass with a proud, domed head. It will be beautiful.
It will also be a fantastic waste of time.
Any drinker worth his Blarney is familiar with Guinness' lauded multi-step process to pouring a perfect pint, but few are aware of the reasons for it, and even fewer know that it has no effect on the beer's flavor. Buzzfeed ran a very good article last year which goes into the reasons for the rise of the ridiculous ritual. I'll summarize: In 1954 Guinness introduced nitrogen-charged metal casks of the standard draft stout, replacing the wooden casks that had been in circulation. Fans of the beer were unconvinced that they could get the same quality from the new kegs as they got from the old ones, so Guinness ad-men invented a pouring process that gave customers the illusion that additional care was being taken with the new stuff.
The campaign was spectacularly effective. Customers grew to expect the extra pouring steps and began to factor the time spent waiting for the "surge" into their ordering habits. Guinness started hosting yearly "perfect pint" competitions, drawing dozens of bartenders in cities around the globe to see who who was best at the futile task. Most diabolical were the tours offered at the Guinness Brewery in Dublin, which did -- and still do -- culminate with perfect pour training for every single visitor. The people who've been through this process are the staunchest believers in it because their pints of Guinness quaffed post-tour actually do have a different flavor than ones poured stateside. This is, of course, due to the freshness of the product and has bugger-all to do with how the beer hits the glass. But you'll never convince them of that.
Here's the truth: Whether a pint of Guinness is poured in 119.5 seconds or 11.95 seconds or 1.195 seconds will have zero effect on how the beer tastes. The reason? The Irish stout is different from many other draft beers in that it's pushed from the keg to the tap with a gas mixture that's about 75 percent nitrogen and 25 percent carbon dioxide (most ales and lagers use a 60 percent CO2/40 percent N blend). While carbon dioxide dissolves readily in beer, nitrogen is largely insoluble. The specialized tap from which a pint of Guinness is poured contains a tiny metal disc with even tinier holes which break the nitrogen out of solution as the beer passes through.
It's this process that creates the unique cascading effect visible in Guinness and other nitrogenated stouts -- as the bubbles of nitrogen break out, they naturally try to rise to the surface by flowing where there's the least amount of friction: the middle of the glass. The action of the liquid rising in the middle of the glass draws liquid in high-friction areas -- the sides of the glass -- downward. Voila -- the surge.
Thing is, this cascading effect and the creating of a thick, dense head will occur regardless of the methods you employ to fill a glass. The amount of nitrogen in the liquid will also be the same whether the beer is poured in one step or six. The Guinness method has but one benefit: aesthetics. "It is a ritual," Guinness brewmaster Fergal Murray says. "It's theater. It's about creating an experience."
The upsetting part of the perfect pour kabuki is that it's become so ingrained in drinkers' heads that it's the only thing they know about Guinness, and that's a shame because the brewery has a rich history and brewing practices that have far more effect on the beer. For instance: Arthur Guinness' dad, Richard, was a land steward for a man named Arthur Price, who in 1722 purchased a small brewery in Dublin called Kildrought and placed Rich in charge. When Price died, he bequeathed young Arthur -- his godson -- the princely sum of £100, the only stipulation being that it be used to expand Kildrought. Arthur used these funds well, securing a lease on a brewery site in St. James's Gate in Dublin that cost £45 per year and extended to the year 10,759. That's not a typo -- Arthur Guinness purchased a 9,000-year lease. When climate change or nuclear war or the progeny of Sarah Palin finally collapse civilization and we're all trading our children for cigarettes, the Guinness family will still own that brewery.
Also unique is that every batch of fresh Guinness was at one time blended with a long-aged, sour version of the stout to achieve its characteristic and oh-so-subtle lactic tang. While the brewery refuses to confirm whether this process is still in use, that slight sourness remains.
Take those two tidbits along with the fact that Guinness is one of the lowest-calorie beers around (about 125 calories for a 12-ounce serving, just 15 more than a can of Bud Light) and there are a lot of reasons to enjoy a pint of Guinness. A pointless six-step pour isn't one of them.