June 19 2012 11:21 PM

How I joined the cult of the Irish stout

Photo by Dave Maass

I've chosen The Ould Sod as the place to sit at the bar and write this tale because of the way the bartender answered the phone.

"I'm looking for a place to have a Guinness," I said.

"I think we can accommodate you," the voice answered with an Irish lilt. "I'll just call the warehouse."

I've got a pint of the good stuff next to my notebook as a group of fiddlers tune in the corner. The Irish pub in Normal Heights is about as Guinness as the X Games are Red Bull. The Guinness tap stands alone, in an honored station against the front of the bar, while lesser domestic and craft beers are lined up along the back. (The Sod serves more from the Guinness tap than all the others combined, the bartender says.) The bar mats are Guinness, Guinness signs are mounted on the windows and there's an "I [Heart] Guinness" sticker stuck to the drawer of the old-fashioned cash register.

Maybe everyone has a Guinness story, but before I tell you mine, let me define it in case aliens scorch the Earth and not a single keg is left for posterity. Guinness is a 4.1-percent Irish dry stout that's thicker than blood and older than the U.S. Constitution. It's creamy, black, almost pudding-like and, if poured correctly, marked by gas bubbles that cascade down the inside of the glass and a head that would make a latte froth with jealousy. I'm always shocked at the heft of the pint glass in the same way I'm always surprised at the weight of a gun.

But aliens won't destroy Guinness. There's probably an Irish pub on each of Saturn's 62 moons already. Everywhere I've been, Guinness has been there first. Guinness in Japan, where it's pronounced "Ginesu." Guinness in Ghana, where you've got a choice between Guinness Extra Smooth, with its higher alcohol content, and Malta Guinness, a non-alcoholic, supposedly nutritious beverage that tastes like liquefied cornflakes. I've had Guinness in Ireland, of course, but I also served it myself as a barman in an English pub. In 2003, I sardonically toasted rabbinical students drinking Guinness in an Irish pub in Tel Aviv just as President George W. Bush came on TV to give Saddam Hussein his final ultimatum: Leave in three days or shock-and-awe. (About a month later, the bar was suicide-bombed.)

But the first place I encountered Guinness was a punk-rock apartment in Phoenix, circa 1996. Home to Jedi 5, a pop-punk band, every inch of wall space was covered with concert posters—except for the bathroom, which was covered in pornography; they'd warn you to be careful not to start pissing up the wall.

I was a gullible 17-year-old who found myself writhing in agony in that bathroom. I'd just received a tattoo on my left calf (the tongue-waving green orb from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy) from an inexperienced apprentice. I was bleeding like I'd been shot. The punks gave me a cockamamie story about how you must slap a scalding hot towel on the tattoo to kill off the white blood cells. Otherwise the scab leaches the color.

With the benefit of hindsight and WebMD.com, I now realize the "wet towel" treatment sent me into shock. The last thing I should've done was down my first-ever Guinness in an attempt to impress Jedi 5. Up until then, I'd been a Zima drinker.

The association between Guinness and excruciating pain put me off all beer for many years, until I found myself in a pub in Manchester with a Northern Irish girl. She insisted, in an accent that pronounced "ow" as "oi" ("Are you going into toin? See you aroind later."), that I try the beer again. And again. And again. Until I finally understood.

I've been a Guinness snob ever since, quick to complain when a sloppy bartender fills a glass all in one pour, rather than filling it up three-quarters, waiting a couple minutes, then topping it off. Before a friend orders a framboise, or some other fruity beer, I might suggest they try a Guinness with a splash of black currant cordial instead.

In addition to The Ould Sod (3373 Adams Ave.), San Diego has plenty of places to pick up a proper Guinness, most notably The Field (544 Fifth Ave. in the Gaslamp), which proudly displays its "Perfect Pint" awards. Hooley's Irish Pub & Grill (2955 Jamacha Road in Rancho San Diego and 550 Grossmont Center Drive in La Mesa) also serves up a variety of Guinness-infused devourables, including Guinness onion soup and Guinness BBQ ribs.

Now I'm savoring my pint's last dreg of foam and thinking to myself, The toucan is right, Guinness is good for you.

Email davem@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on Twitter @DaveMaass.


See all events on Wednesday, Oct 26