Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Arthur's craft

"What'll you have?

I'll have a pint!

I'll have a pint with you, sir!"

-The Pogues

Before I knew anything about beer, I knew about Guinness.

The summer I turned 16, I went to Ireland with my parents and brother. About two weeks before we left, my brother called me and left a long babbling message about how excited he was for the trip. I remember nothing from the message itself, except one thing: he was DAMN excited to show me Guinness.

Ten years later and Guinness has kept a special place in my heart. I, by no means, love it the same way my brother does, or even as much as my mam, but I do have a strong appreciation for it. So when I received an email offering the chance to interview Fergal Murray, the master brewer of Guinness, I couldn’t believe it. I honestly did not believe the email. Thank God I have people like Greggers and Kyle to keep me in line and look into these sorts of things; otherwise it would have been one hell of a missed opportunity.

Fergal spends about two weeks of March traveling around the States each year – acting as the face of Guinness, while the eyes of the world turn to Ireland for Paddy’s day.

Actually, regardless of the season, much of his life is spent being the face of everyone’s favorite Irish stout. Fergal spends his time traveling the world – from Cork to Dallas to Sydney and everywhere in between – talking about what makes his beer so iconic.

Guinness is special, he says, because it gives people the ability to “cling on something from home; coming home to the emerald island. When they can get a pint of Guinness it connects one to Ireland; it gives them the community spirit. It’s a symbol of people who want to become Irish. But it’s also the quality of the product: the taste – that bold and distinctive taste. That’s why it sticks out to much.”

Much of the importance of Guinness, he says, relies on the visual impact of the craft. “You have to see it poured correctly. I don’t ever want to be disappointed by a bartender. It should be a work of art coming across the bar – the final top off the dome. The flavor’s the bonus. That’s what Guinness is about.”

With 250 years of brewing history, Arthur Guinness signed the lease for St. James Gate 17 years before America declared its independence, Guinness must be doing something right. Fergal tells me about how the stout has developed in the past two and a half centuries. “It got better. It has consistently improved. It’s a journey. If Arthur were around today he’d agree. The computer technology has improved, which affects the craft – it makes it easier to brew. The flavor recipe is exactly the same, but the consumers experience is so much more.”

So how does one obtain the “most envied job on earth?” “It’s about mastering a craft, understanding it and having that passion. Whether you’re making chocolate or fixing clocks, it’s about the passion, it’s about the beliefs and knowing why it’s such a great product.”

While the passion for Guinness shows in everything he says, Fergal’s love for his job is most apparent when he describes his travels, “The engagement is so cool: the passion of the people, the opportunities of pouring a perfect pint. Watching people obtain the bragging rights of pouring the perfect pint...”

Everywhere he goes, he says, he finds fantastic bars and delights in the experience of watching the training of the bartenders. “Getting it into the glass is the art, the same perfect way that they get it in the glass. I’m very content that you’ll get a great tasting pint no matter where you go.”

Fergal speaks highly of the stouts from the craft beer market, saying, “other breweries do a good job…it’s cool to see the distinctive flavors between them.” However, he insists that on Paddy’s day no beer other than Guinness should be drunk. “If anyone does something silly like drink a domestic American product on March 17th, I’m certain St Patrick will come down and haunt you.”

While my experience with Catholicism has suggested no such thing, I trust Fergal on this one. Tonight, I’ll be drinking Guinness.

Happy Paddy's Day, everyone. And remember, clovers aren't Irish.

[Timothy, you can stop holding your breath now.]

Photo courtesy of Taylor Montgomery.

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