If you’ve ever have had a Guinness in the United States, you’ve also probably heard some obnoxious, know-it-all world traveler tell you how much better it tastes in Ireland. There are all sorts of theories out there about why that might be the case: They make the stuff they sell in the United States in a different location. It’s not as fresh. Americans are idiots and don't know how to serve beer. But are any of these suppositions true?
To help you be the Guinness know-it-all this St. Patrick’s Day, I checked in with the experts to get the inside scoop.
THEORY: They keep the good stuff for themselves in Ireland.
In a clip from President Barack Obama’s 2011 visit to Moneygall, Ireland, (where his great-great-great grandfather was from), he talks about how he once had a Guinness in the Shannon Airport on his way to Afghanistan and realized that, “It tastes so much better here than it does in the states. What I realized is you’re keeping all the best stuff here.”
The former president isn’t alone in his thinking.
“There’s an amazing conspiracy that we keep the good stuff for ourselves to fund the tourism industry,” Aaron Ridgeway, a Guinness Storehouse beer specialist, tells me. While he recommends people visit the Storehouse (the number one tourist attraction in all of Ireland) and try the Guinness for themselves, the truth is you’re drinking the exact same Guinness at your corner bar as you would get at a Dublin pub.
THEORY: They make U.S. Guinness in a different location.
OK, so this gets a little bit confusing because Guinness does brew in other locations—right now, the beer is made in 49 countries. The brand also has a big project in the works in Baltimore: They’ve lured some top American brewing talent to the Open Gate Brewery to make experimental beers as well as the Guinness Blonde American Lager. The test taproom is already open and welcoming guests, while the full operation, including a visitor’s center and tours, will be up and running by late summer or early fall, according to Ryan Wagner, an ambassador for the Baltimore-based brewery.
But, here’s the thing: Even when the Open Gate Brewery is fully functional, Guinness Draught, the brand’s blockbuster product, will still be made in Ireland for the North American market. So, even if you’re drinking it in the U.S. of A., you’re still drinking the same stuff as the Irish.
THEORY: Americans don’t know how to correctly store and pour Guinness.
“It’s not that [Guinness] tastes so much better in Ireland as a standalone fact, but that it tastes better in places where it’s taken care of well,” says cicerone and drinks educator Ethan Fixell. That means keeping clean tap lines, storing kegs at the right temperature, and serving it in proper glassware without any soapy residue—all things that Guinness in the United States has been really aggressive about educating bars on, Fixell says.
According to Anthony Malone, one of the owners of Swift Hibernian Lounge, a bar considered by many to pull the best pint of Guinness in New York City, the obsessive attention to detail also includes serving Guinness a bit warmer than you would a lager, which lets the roasted malt flavor shine through.
Another key technique is the two-part pour, necessary because Guinness is pressurized on a nitrogen and carbon dioxide mix, which gives the beer its distinctive velvety texture and creamy head. There needs to be a bit of time for the beer to settle before it can be topped off. Guinness marketing insists that time is precisely 119.53 seconds or the “longest two minutes of your life.” Good bartenders just eye it, though.
Malone, who is originally from Dublin, tries to keep the experience at Swift as close as possible to one you would get in Ireland, and thinks Guinness pints in America have gotten better over the years. But the average bartender in America just isn’t going to take it as seriously as the average publican would in Ireland. Most small-town Irish pubs don’t have a cocktail list or a large beer selection, so how they pour their Guinness is the main point of differentiation, and why people go to one bar over another.
VERDICT: It depends.
THEORY: Guinness in America not as fresh.
While the importing process has been streamlined over the years, there’s no getting around the fact that Guinness has to travel across the Atlantic and go through a distributor to get to a bar in the U.S. That time spent getting the beer from one place to another may affect how people perceive its flavor.
THEORY: Guinness tastes better in Ireland because you’re in Ireland.
It’s just like how a Corona tastes a whole lot better when you’re sitting on a beach in Mexico. “It’s sense and place all together. You’re in a century-old bar having a person taking a few minutes with it, and you want to love it,” says Joshua M. Bernstein, a beer writer whose fourth beer book is coming out this spring. “If enough people come back from vacation with all these great memories of their time in Ireland and tell you how much better the beer is there and enough people repeat it, eventually you’re going to believe it.”
Even within Ireland, accounts differ as to where the best Guinness comes from. Ridgeway tells a story of a woman who was visiting the Gravity Bar on the top floor of the Storehouse, which looks out on the entirety of Dublin, and told him the pint he had just pulled was lovely, but not her favorite. She had just been in Achill Island, off the west coast of Ireland, when a storm came in from the Atlantic, and the pub lost power. Someone picked up a guitar, and someone else a fiddle, and they had a traditional music session in the candlelight.
“I told her she hadn’t actually mentioned the beer yet. But it’s the atmosphere, it’s the craic,” Ridgeway says, using the Irish word for general good times. “It’s more about living in the moment, that unexplainable feeling you get when you walk down the streets of Dublin, or Galway or Cork—the idea that everyone is there to have a good time and looking after each other.”
During the last few years, I’ve been lucky enough to go to Ireland three times. On my first-ever visit, I went to the Storehouse in Dublin. Many who visit the home of Guinness have never even tried the beer before they go. I had, but I had only sipped it before, unaware that you had to dip below the head to get the sweeter beer down below. So that was the first best Guinness I ever had.
The second best Guinness I ever had was on a trip to visit a friend in Dingle. I drank a Guinness while getting to know some of his friends as the wind picked up outside, excited about the plans he had made for us for the weekend. That pint was even better than the first.
By my third trip to Ireland, I was traveling alone. I faced my anxiety about being a woman by herself, driving on the opposite side of the road. Once I reached Galway, having only taken a little bit of paint off the car, I celebrated with a victory pint at the hotel. That pint was pretty good, too.
And then, recently, on a sleety weekend in New York City, I went down to Swift to check out its Guinness. I was surprised by how bustling the bar was early on a Saturday afternoon. It was cozy and warm. It wasn’t a foreign country or a big adventure, but it was a reminder there was still new stuff to discover right here at home. It was a pretty tasty pint.
VERDICT: Totally true—but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a great Guinness in the U.S.