Coming to Terms
Chances are, if you've imbibed some seriously potent brew it was bock beer, ale, porter or stout. The term "ale," once used for a beer made without hops, is now applied in the U.S. to a pale, strongly hopped malt beverage, generally brewed in a top (as opposed to bottom) fermentation process. Bock beer, said to take its name from Einbeck, Prussia, where it was first made, is a heavier, darker beer -- "dregs of the barrel," as they say -- commonly drunk in the spring. Porter is a strong, dark ale brewed with the addition of roasted malt to give flavor and color. Stout, darker and maltier than porter, has a more pronounced hop aroma and may possess an alcohol content of 6 to 7 percent. According to John McGuire Jr., manager of McGurk's and himself a scholar of heady beverages, the term "stout" comes from the docks of old Britain. Porter, which predates stout, wasn't strong enough for these dockworkers, who loaded and unloaded ships all day and drank as they worked. "They would say, 'Give me the stoutest porter you have,' meaning the heaviest," he says.
Pouring -- or pulling, if you like -- a stout has more protocol attached to it than does a banquet for a visiting head of state. First, it's a two-step pour. A pint glass will do, though purists insist on a 20-ounce "proper pint." Whatever the vessel, it should be "beer-clean" -- that is, free of soapy residue and wiped down. Tilt the glass at a 45-degree angle and fill it about two-thirds of the way. Then, let it settle. That can take awhile -- as long as 10 minutes -- so stout drinkers have to be patient. John "Lucky" Mc-Ateer, night bartender at McGurk's and a stickler for a proper pour, relates that during Mardi Gras, "we had some first-time stout drinkers in here. The stouts were settling on the bar, I'm pouring beers as fast as I can, and these guys are saying, 'Hey, did you forget about me or what?' Then they took the glass, still settling, and started drinking it before I could top it off. I had to take it back from them; it wasn't finished."
When the stout has settled, you finish filling the glass. The head on a glass of stout is its crowning glory. It should be a half to three-quarters of an inch thick and should rise a little over the rim. On a proper head of stout, say the Brits, you should be able to float a fivepence. In the U.S., make that a dime.
A Lion Among Stouts
Of all the stouts, Guinness -- brewed in St. James Gate, Dublin, since 1759 -- has garnered the most fame. Part of that, of course, has to do with the ever-popular Book of World Records annually published by Guinness. For the last five years, the brewer has sponsored a unique contest in the U.S.: Whoever pens the best essay, 50 words or fewer, on the theme of a "perfect pint" of Guinness wins his or her own quaint pub in Ireland. Going by surnames alone, the winners so far -- O'Driscoll, Knight, Weston, Gallagher, Mulligan -- should have no trouble speaking in the vernacular to their Gaelic patrons, the vernacular being blarney.
Guinness, too, has been touted as a health tonic: One of the company's better-known ad slogans was "Guinness Is Good for You." Davey Muldrew, a visiting Irish minstrel, onstage this month at McGurk's, swears that patients in Irish hospitals get "two pints a day for purposes of fortification. It's full of iron and malt, they say."
Another contribution of the Dublin brewery has been to acquaint the American palate with two staples of British pubs: the Black-and-Tan (Bass and Guinness) and the Half-and-Half (Harp and Guinness). That conjures a joke heard long ago: A drunken sailor comes knocking at the door of a pub in County Mayo. "I wants me 'arf n' 'arf," he shouts to no one in particular. "Go 'way," says the proprietor, come to the open window above. "We've closed hours ago." "Nah," says the sailor, waxing ever more belligerent, "I ain't goin' til I gets me 'arf n' 'arf!" The saloonkeeper throws up his hands, walks away from the window and returns with a large chamberpot, which he gleefully dumps on the sailor. "There's your 'arf n' 'arf ," he croaks. "'Arf mine and 'arf the old lady's!"
Enthusiasts cite three kinds of stouts. First are the dry stouts, typically bitter, the category in which Guinness and Kansas City's Boulevard Dry Stout fall. Every year for St. Patrick's Day, the St. Louis Brewery brings out its Nitro Irish Stout, 5.5 percent alcohol by content, a full-bodied dry stout that has the bitterness of roasted barley with flaked barley added for a smooth finish. Next are the sweet stouts, variously called milk stouts or oatmeal stouts. English stouts generally fall into this category. Finally there are the imperial stouts, the chieftains, the most robust of all stouts and descended from the ultraheady brews that once came out of imperial Russia and the Baltics. In America, a few brewpubs make imperial stout, among them Burt Grant's in Yakima, Wash. Pubs in some British territories have a Triple X stout, only available in the bottle, that approaches 8 percent alcohol by volume.
Stout drinkers, by and large, are a finicky lot. Some will not drink the dark, filling brews back-to-back, choosing instead to alternate with a domestic brand. Others drink stout only on special occasions. Says Bernie McDonald, who may be heard strumming and singing with wife Barbara at McGurk's on Sundays and Mondays, "When I drink it, I drink it in Ireland with smoked salmon and soda bread." To some, such as Lucky McAteer, appearance is key. "It's got be fresh and creamy," says he. "If it looks right to me, I'll drink it all night." Still others drink by the numbers. Says Joe Butler of McNulty's, "You can't just drink one stout, because a bird never flew with one wing. You know there's no drinkin' even numbers? You ask an Irishman how many he's had, he'll say, 'I just drank an odd one.' It may be seven or nine, as long as it's an odd one. That way you have to have another.