A Gulp of Dublin

Guinness Tour a Tough Swallow, Till the End

By David Abel | Globe Staff | 5/28/2003

DUBLIN - It's tall, dark, and most handsome, with a creamy head. One smooth swill is enough to make you believe it's a gift from God, as nearly anyone in this nation of beer drinkers will tell you.

But a Guinness is not, at least purely, a divine invention - a point made over and over again at what has become this city's leading tourist attraction.

Since it opened two years ago, the Guinness Storehouse has served more than 1 million pints of "black gold," the thirst-slaking prize rewarding those who reach the top of this six-story homage to Ireland's most cherished creation. Yet the prize comes at a price: an unrelenting stream of propaganda about Arthur Guinness, who founded the beer company in 1759.

The mere mortal, whom curators have anointed with a status approaching a saint, is portrayed as something like the father of modern Ireland. His picture and folksy adages are nearly everywhere. There's the homeless shelter he built, the claim that all Irish girls were hoping to marry one of his employees (a "Guinness man"), and the relatively good wages he paid his workers. There's even a multimedia exhibit about him that asks: "What's the missing ingredient?" Why, good old Arthur, of course.

When you can get past the mawkish tributes, you'll find yourself in a room shaped like a giant pint glass. From there, the museum starts in a humid room featuring a large indoor waterfall, meant to represent the real magic ingredient in Guinness beer - the water from Irish springs. Here you'll also find assorted fun facts about barley, hops, and yeast, the beer's principal ingredients. For example: It's the roasting and malting of the barley that gives Guinness its deep dark hue.

The most interesting part of the tour, perhaps, is the explanation of the brewing process. But if you're hoping to see the beer actually being made, as some guidebooks suggest, forget about it. The building may have once been the company's brewery, but it's now most definitely a museum, and everything here is a replica or a well-preserved relic.

If it all feels too virtual, or the walk-through of copper tanks reminds you of something out of Disney World, remember: There's that prize at the end.

The well-illustrated brew-making exhibit explains how all the hops and yeast and barley come together. It even displays special sniffing devices, which provide a sense of what the barley or hops smell like during different stages of fermentation.

The beer's promoters, not surprisingly, call the brewing process "Five Steps to Heaven." The first step is steeping grains of barley in water until they spout shoots, the sugars that make malt. The barley is then dried and submerged in tanks of hot water, which eventually produce a sugary liquor called wort. Later, the wort is drained in large copper kettles, where it's boiled with a smidgen of hops. Then the yeast is added, and the result is something unappealing and greenish. The final step is the draining of the yeast, or the maturation process.

Then comes the sampling. Unfortunately, according to the Guinness website (www.guinness.com), "There are currently no vacancies for this job."

After the brewing process explanation comes more propaganda, including a nostalgic exhibit featuring decades worth of Guinness advertising. There's also an interesting account of how the beer company created the Guinness Book of World Records and how the company persuaded pregnant women that it was in their interest to drink its stout. (The curators leave some facts out, such as Ireland's rampant alcoholism. A 1999 survey by the European Union, for example, showed more than 51 percent of Irish citizens said they drink regularly, more than any EU country and double the average for Europeans.)

There are lots of other tidbits to learn about, such as how cooperages built the old beer-storing barrels and how Guinness is consumed in more than 150 countries.

But by this point, if you have a pulse, there's something beckoning from the top of the pint-shaped building. It is, of course, that promised beverage that has taunted your taste buds since you plunked down the nearly $15 to enter.

An hour into the tour, it's hard to resist skipping the rest of the extended tease. If you're left underwhelmed thus far, the bar at the top of the museum should make up for it.

The ride up to the sixth floor may be cramped with tourists, but when the elevator doors open, it's like "Ode to Joy" is indeed ringing from the heavens. All around the circular "Gravity Bar," is a panorama of Dublin, a sprawling view of green hills, turrets, and the labyrinth of narrow streets and countless pubs. At the center, the heart of the place, there's the mother lode - taps flowing with free beer into pint after pint.

All around is a hopping scene of tipsy tourists, all marveling in their own way at the city below and the bitter brew in their hands.
Then it's your turn.

You clear a path to the bar. You wait impatiently for a bartender. Then you hand over your ticket and watch the bartender make the black magic. You watch as he tilts a glass and pours the stout until it fills about three-quarters of the pint. You want it now, but the beer needs time to settle. After a minute that feels like an hour, the bartender tops it off with a creamy head, making it look like a sundae.

Then it's just you and your Guinness. Nothing else matters. Above the chaos of Dublin, the blather about Arthur now a faint memory, this is your own private moment of bliss.

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

Copyright, The Boston Globe