Draft Guinness: A tough game worth playing?

A proper Irish stout is dark, creamy, just slightly bitter – and almost impossible to find.

“It’s a bad traveler,” says Chris Doyle, who has poured Guinness for 28 years at the Irish landmark Tom Bergin’s Tavern. And when it gets old, “it gets a sour taste, like vinegar.”

For a beer with a name that means “strong,” Irish stout is remarkably fickle. Beyond staleness (Guinness is shipped from Dublin, after all), other hazards can muddle a pint.

Too cold? Tastes dull. Soapy glass? Won’t foam. Pumped through dirty draft lines? You don’t want to know.

And then there’s the pouring problem. With its thick, foamy head, a good pour is a two-step process that allows it to settle. Elapsed time: About four minutes.

For some impatient Americans, that’s about four minutes too many. The result? Guinness foam monsters. “You’d never get away with that in Ireland,” says Doyle.

Draft Guinness is a tough game, but some say it isn’t worth playing. Compared to other styles, like the Russian imperial stout, they’re “low-alcohol, low-malt beers,” says Sang Yoon, owner of Father’s Office in Santa Monica. “They’re all susceptible to heat and light infection.”

In fact, Yoon has a word for the famously strong-tasting beers: “They’re weak.” (Imperial stouts range from 8-12 percent alcohol; Irish ones clock in around 4 percent.)

However, an Irish stout with a passport isn’t the same thing as one on its home turf. Beer destined for the U.S. gets extra hops, which acts as a preservative but also bitters the flavor.

Guinness can’t be faulted for lack of trying. The company is rumored to have spent $13 million developing the “rocket widget,” a plastic rod that maintains the texture of its bottled brew.

Still, no one will mistake that beer for a fresh, well-poured draft.

So what do you have to do to get a really good stout?

Says Rob Nevera, manager of Tom Bergin’s: “Buy a plane ticket and fly to Ireland.”

Variety Weekend spent the weekend in search of the perfect draft stout

Beer: Guinness Irish Stout (Ireland)
Where: Anywhere with shamrocks up for St. Patrick’s Day (and many bars without)
Notes: A dark, coffee-like brew with a dense, white head and a pleasantly bitter palate. Creamy mouthfeel and low carbonation with a crucial, balancing acidity.

Beer: Murphy’s Irish Stout (Ireland)
Where: Library Alehouse in Santa Monica, Lucky Baldwin’s in Pasadena, The Yard House in Pasadena
Notes: More complex than Guinness. All the typical coffee and cream, but with notes of dark chocolate and raspberry.

Beer: Young’s Double Chocolate Stout (England)
Where: The Yard House
Notes: Just like the name says: dark chocolate on the nose, salty milk chocolate on the palate. Bitter coffee undertones mesh well with the soft mouthfeel.

Beer: Young’s Oatmeal Stout (England)
Where: Father’s Office in Santa Monica
Notes: Sweet, creamy and heavy with just a touch of bitterness. Coffee with cream and sugar.

Beer: Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout (Anderson Valley Brewing Co., Mendocino)
Where: Library Alehouse
Notes: According to the brewer, it’s what Irish beer should taste like. Sweet, with just a touch of bitterness, but thinner and fizzier than the other stouts.

Beer: Old Rasputin Imperial Stout (North Coast Brewery, Chicago)
Where: Father’s Office
Notes: Incredibly strong and complex. A base of coffee with maple, pecan and spice notes. Highly recommended, but take note: It’s a meal.

Tasting panel included writer Andrew Barker and 55 Degrees Las Vegas sommelier Jeremiah Henderson.

A Guinness book of records

Our panel found remarkable variations in draft Guinness. Lesson learned: A Guinness is worth waiting for or it’s not worth anything at all.

BEST: Our bartender at Library Alehouse executed a textbook two-step pour and the beer tasted remarkably pure and fresh. Served cool, but not cold; this amplified the creaminess.

At Tom Bergin’s Tavern, our four-minute Guinness came with a shamrock drawn in its perfect, quarter-inch head.

WORST: Guinness at Molly Malone’s had a brown, cottage cheese-textured head, and its nose and palate were dominated by a smoky, metallic note. Green beer without the coloring.

At Lucky Baldwin’s, we got a quick pour, a low head, and a sour, briny beer.

We thought there had been a mix-up, but a second pint confirmed the problem.

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