There’s a long-standing Irish tradition observed in bars and pubs far from the Emerald Isles: If offered a pint of Guinness beer outside their native land, Irish drinkers may mutter about unpleasant aftertastes and provide scathing commentary on the bartender’s tapping technique.
Guinness, they say, doesn’t travel well.
That oft-repeated assertion was tabled several years ago at a pub in Oxford, where members of the Brisbane Initiative, an international primary care research leadership program, had gathered. Liam Glynn, of the National University of Ireland in Galway, was reluctant to drink the famously dense stout outside Ireland, and that, says Daniel Kotz, an epidemiologist at Maastricht University Medical Center in the Netherlands, “was the moment we started to think about this issue.”
“We normally do research on other topics,” Kotz adds — smoking cessation programs, peanut allergies, cardiovascular multimorbidity, arthritis, the overprescription of antibiotics — but on that day, the idea of an intercontinental scientific evaluation of the Guinness theory began to ferment.
“As funding in beer research typically goes into drinking itself, there is little existing scientific evidence in this field,” the researchers note in their paper in the latest issue of the Journal of Food Science.
One year, 33 cities, 71 pubs and 103 pints of Guinness later — not including “extensive pretesting” — Kotz, Glynn and two other members of the Brisbane Initiative, Christian Mallen of the University of Keele in the United Kingdom and Jochen Cals, also with Maastricht University Medical Center in the Netherlands, concluded that there was something to the Irish beer lore.
Guinness beer, they found, is more enjoyable when consumed in Ireland, even when “pub ambiance” and other sensory factors are accounted for.
To arrive at that conclusion the researchers undertook data collection efforts — i.e. drinking — in 14 countries on two continents. They recorded temperature and head height of the subject pints and assessed their appearance, creaminess and taste, rated overall pub ambiance (0=forgettable, 100=memorable) and noted the gender of their drinking companions — “women did not have a confounding effect on the outcomes,” the researchers note. They interviewed bartenders and assessed their pouring performance according to the standards set by Guinness (199.5 seconds’ total tapping time, 22 millimeter head, 4 to 6 degree serving temperature) and taught at its St. James’s Gate Brewery in Dublin, where all four of the researchers furthered their knowledge of the field.
Their work focused on the overall Guinness-supping experience, rather than investigating the possibility of global taste variations, a complicated and contentious matter made murkier since Guinness brews three variations of its stout for different markets (the researchers only encountered one of them in their sampling, however) and not all Guinness is brewed at its Dublin headquarters/distillery/museum/pub.
The findings are a bit at odds with the fastidious brew masters (or perhaps the fastidious marketers) of St. James’s Gate. On the Guinness website’s FAQ page the question is posed without reference to taste or enjoyment, “Is it true that you get a much better pint of Guinness stout in Ireland?”
The brewers’ answer “Guinness is Guinness — wherever you are. We always use pure, fresh water from natural local sources for the Guinness stout brewed outside Ireland. That said, in blind tests (with a bunch of highly cynical journalists) none of our sample could tell the difference between Irish-brewed Guinness and the locally produced variety. All the Guinness sold in the UK, Ireland and North America is brewed in Ireland at the historic St. James’s Gate Brewery in Dublin.”
“We wanted to have one measure that captures the overall impressions you have from drinking Guinness,” Kotz explains. Although their “Guinness overall enjoyment score” was somewhat affected by pub ambience, beer appearance, mouth feel, flavor and aftertaste, and the researcher doing the sampling, there was a significant inside-Ireland effect.
“It’s always very special to visit Ireland,” Kotz notes.
Although the researchers don’t posit an explanation for their findings they do air a few of the many hypotheses on the matter — notably the conspiracy theory that the best of the brew is produced for Guinness employees, the next tier in quality is sold in Ireland and the worst is flogged off to unsuspecting foreigners.
More investigation is called for, the researchers say—in particular, “future research involving female testers in strongly advised” — and fortunately Kotz’s enthusiasm for the subject hasn’t been drained by his year of field research.
“I’m a little bit more critical now. I order a point of Guinness now and I look at it differently,” he says, “but I’m not the type of guy who just drinks one kind of beer.”