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Guinness Storehouse visit results in buzzkill

March 28, 2013

This is the first of a two-part series on Neal Pollack's visit to Dublin, Ireland, during St. Patrick's Day festivities. The second part will be on the St. Paddy's Day parade.

I love visiting Ireland. It offers so much for the traveler: Unmatched natural greenery, a rich, soulful, cultural history, and most important, some of the kindest, most authentic people on Earth, who have borne seemingly endless misfortune with shockingly good humor.

The Guinness Storehouse, the most popular tourist attraction in the country, bears basically none of those qualities, though it does offer good beer. The Storehouse is a thin simulacrum of the place it’s supposed to represent. But people seem to love it anyway, so I thought I’d check it out when I was in Dublin.

The Storehouse sits on the grounds of the St. James Brewery, where they make the Guinness, or at least some of the Guinness (in fact, the largest working Guinness brewery in the world is in Lagos, Nigeria). For almost a hundred years, Guinness used the Storehouse as a yeast-fermentation plant; it wasn’t a tourist attraction then. In 1988, Guinness shut down the plant. Nine years later, the Guinness brand, one of the international symbols of Ireland, was bought by Diageo, a British multinational corporation that also owns Smirnoff Vodka, Captain Morgan’s rum, and many other popular brain-cell-killing brands.

Diageo set to work selling the hell out of Guinness. Even though the beer’s popularity has declined modestly in Ireland, it’s never been bigger around the world, a testament both to the beer’s unshakable quality and Diageo’s seemingly bottomless branding budget.

The Storehouse is the centerpiece of their plan--a mammoth Beer Vatican framed by beautifully restored steel girders originally installed by turn-of-the-20th-century Chicago-style architects. It soars seven stories, centered on a glass atrium shaped like an enormous pint of Guinness. There are restaurants and interactive exhibits on beer making, on the history of Guinness advertising, and an unpopular but probably legally required section about “responsible drinking.”

Your admission, which runs more than 20 bucks for adults and around 16 or so for college students (who make up a lot of the Storehouse’s clientele), gets you a ticket for a Guinness on the top-floor bar, which offers 360-degree views of the city. They advertise the beer as “complimentary,” but given the ticket price, it’s actually the most expensive pour in Dublin.

I arrived at the Storehouse the day before St. Patrick’s Day, two hours after I landed in Dublin. All I wanted to do was sleep, but instead, I was plunged into the maw. It turned out to be the busiest day in the facility’s history, with more than 10,000 paid visitors, and it showed. The streets strained with thirsty tourists, who were lined up like they were waiting to see Coldplay.

I got a private tour of the facility, though you could only call it “private” because I was walking around with one other guy who was being paid to pay attention to me. Large numbers of slack-mouthed visitors buzzed around us in tipsy clumps, and the Storehouse boomed with PA messages, both recorded and live. Guys were yelling into headset microphones at every corner. Everyone working there, understandably, looked a little stressed-out and overwhelmed.

My tour guide was no exception. He walked me hurriedly through the beer-making exhibit, his eyes somewhat glassy, obviously reciting facts from memory. We saw a display about roasting barley, though we saw no actual barley being roasted.

There was a cascading waterfall meant to represent the pour-off from the Wicklow Mountains, and a weird series of hologram images featuring Fergal Murray, Guinness’ “Master Brewer.” We stopped at a display about hops, and my guide explained the importance of hops in the brewing process.

That was the moment that I realized that I wasn’t a traveler, or even a tourist, but, in fact, a prisoner of a massive corporate marketing machine.

“Of course, today, we use liquid resin hops,” he said.

“What do you mean, you don’t use actual hops?” I asked. “Are there chemicals in the liquid resin?”

He said he’d have to get back to me. That was the moment that I, in my exhausted, jet-lagged state, realized that I wasn’t a traveler, or even a tourist, but, in fact, a prisoner of a massive corporate marketing machine. At least it was a beer-marketing machine, selling a delicious, singular product, but it was still a snow job. By comparison to a Storehouse visit, going to kiss the Blarney Stone feels like a spontaneous act of religious devotion.

The propaganda worsened when we visited an exhibit about the history of Guinness advertising, which couldn’t even pretend to be about anything other than selling the brand. There were lots of posters and colorful trinkets. Over the years, many animals had been used to promote Guinness, my guide said. These included the archetypal, omnipresent Toucan and the now-outmoded Pelican, who once had his own advertising limerick.

My guide recited, “A wonderful bird is the pelican/His bill will hold more than his belican/He can take in his beak/Enough food for a week. But I'm damned if I see how the helican!”

Neither of us laughed. We regarded each other with shame, which often happens after an unseemly cultural transaction.

“Right,” he said. “Next we’re going to teach you how to pour the perfect pint.”

This was unquestionably the coolest part of the day, and it would have been cooler if it had taken place somewhere other than a tourist-swamped room with at least two dozen taps and an almost unimaginable amount of Guinness memorabilia on the wall. Still, pouring a Guinness is an art, and I was thrilled to finally learn how.

There are six stages to pouring a Guinness, my guide said, though that seemed a little disingenuous, since stage one was “make sure there’s no lipstick on the glass.” The rest of the process has been written about in every men’s magazine from New York to Tokyo: You hold the glass at a 45-degree angle under the tap, and then fill up the glass three-quarters of the way. Next, you set the beer down for a couple of minutes and allow nitrogen bubbles to shoot up the sides and the middle, forming Guinness’ unparalleled creamy head.

Once settled, you top off the beer, pouring into a straight glass, until the head forms a dome, or a cap, over the top of the glass. Stage six is “take a sip,” which again seems a little forced as a “stage,” but I was glad to finally tuck into a pint. I drank, and it was delicious, dark, creamy and nutty. Truly a perfect pint of Guinness.

With that, my guide disappeared, saying that he had to prepare the next phase of my tour. He left me at a table with a couple of unfriendly college students from New York, who were in town for St. Patrick’s Day, which confused me a bit because the holiday is much more rowdy in New York than Dublin.

“Do you want my Guinness?” one of them said to me.

“What?” I said.

“I don’t really like beer,” she said. “I’m more of a cider girl.”

Then what the hell are you doing here? I thought.

“Drink it,” her friend said. “It’s good for you. It’s supposed to have important nutrients.”

Mercifully, at this point, my guide returned to rescue me. He walked me across the floor and took me behind a wall, where I sat on a large bottlecap-shaped seat and watched a loud movie about the history of Guinness. Then it was time, and a door opened, and I was inside the “Connoisseur Experience.”

This is the newest exhibit at the Storehouse, and it costs extra, something like 16 Euros per person, less if you buy ahead of time online, and 40 Euros for a whole family. Basically, it’s a fake Irish pub, with a tin ceiling, oil-painted portraits of old Arthur Guinness and various important figures from Guinness history, and a wall of volumes on beer brewing from the Guinness library. The basic draw here is that, in addition to another “perfect pint” of Guinness draught, you also get to sample every other kind of Guinness made in the world, including the bottled version that they make in Africa. For the record, the “Foreign Extra Stout” is a little bit lighter and more acidic than the traditional pub draught, but I can see how it would be refreshing after a hot day under the African sun.

I was joined by a well-heeled but obviously sensible family of five from Minneapolis, headed by a fit patriarch who was beaming like a kid on Christmas. He was a true Guinness connoisseur, and this was obviously the greatest moment of his life. My tour guide disappeared, and was replaced by an equally blank-eyed “bartender,” who proceeded to deliver the exact same marketing spiel, in the exact same words, that I’d already heard. When he began reciting, “A wonderful bird is the pelican/His bill will hold more than his belican...” my mind went dark. But all the beer tasted really good, and I poured myself another “perfect pint.”

If you’re a real Guinness fan, like that guy from Minneapolis, there’s no place on Earth you’d rather visit than the Storehouse. But though I love the beer, I just couldn’t get around the fact that Guinness, the quintessential Irish brand, is actually owned by a British multinational company, which meant that I wasn’t really standing in an Irish landmark, or even in an Irish tourist attraction. Instead, the Storehouse is a British beer-themed colony in the heart of Ireland’s capital, and given the terrible history between the two countries, and the very real animosity that exists between them to this day, something about being there made me feel very sad.

Also, a bit drunk.

After I left the Storehouse, I was looking for a slightly more authentic experience. Since it was a Saturday evening in Dublin, I stopped by a neighborhood pub. This turned out to be an auspicious time to do so, since the “6 Nations” rugby league final was on, featuring the Welsh team against the British. The Irish had given a poor showing this year, but everyone wanted the Welsh to win in colonial underdog proxy. Within five minutes, I had made several friends at the bar. My beard and my Texas driver’s license made me a novelty item.

“You can’t root for those British bastards,” one of them said.

In fact, the Welsh absolutely clobbered the British, 30-3, so everyone in the pub was in an extremely good mood.

“So what else have you done in Dublin so far?” a woman asked me.

“I had to go to the Guinness Storehouse,” I said. “For work.”

“All that Guinness Museum stuff, it’s fucking bollocks,” she said.

Her boyfriend leaned into me. “Let me buy you a drink,” he said. “What’s your favor?”

“I think I’ll have a Guinness,” I said.

I was in Ireland, after all.