Monday 31 March 2014

The Guinness Storehouse and the Guinness Connoisseur Experience

Happily reunited with M & D this Easter Holiday, with the three of us going on a tour of Ireland together. It's our first time on the island, so we have a pretty long list of things to tick off and it's been full-on action straight off the bat. Fresh off the plane at Dublin, we decided to make the most of our afternoon and start taking in the sights, making a beeline for the Guinness Storehouse at St James's Gate, the city's most famous tourist attraction. 

If you go to their website, you can get your Guinness Storehouse adult tickets at 10% off the recommended retail price. No extra discounts for students, but it still made sense for me to claim the cheaper ticket price. We'd also made reservations in advance for the Guinness Connoisseur Experience for 4.30 pm, not knowing at the point that our guide would tell us that dinner was going to be at 5.30 pm sharp ("If you're late everyone else will finish the food at the buffet! I'm not saying the rest are a bunch of greedy sods, but..."). When we let the lady at the information counter know of the unfortunate clash in scheduling, she told us that we had nothing to worry about, and that the course would be done in 45 minutes. Wanting this very much to be true, we believed her, only to be told later on during the Connoisseur Experience itself that it would take an hour an a half at least. T'was most upsetting. 

When we started our self-guided tour though, we were blissfully unaware of all this, and had an interesting wander round the complex. The journey began at the atrium, at the base of the world's biggest pint glass - if filled, it would hold over 14 million pints of Guinness, enough for everyone in Ireland to have a couple of rounds. Much like on the Heineken experience, the main ingredients of beer were highlighted along the route.

We couldn't smell the hops, but like everyone else moving around we took a couple of pictures with the indoor waterfall. Don't listen to what the stories tell you, Guinness isn't actually brewed with water from the River Liffey, but from spring water that flows from the Wicklow Mountains that can be seen from the Gravity Bar on the seventh floor. 

They've got a good sense for drama down at the Guinness Storehouse, so the secret yeast formula that makes their beer so special can be seen hiding away in a safe.  

We spent a while admiring the giant wooden pint of Guinness, which had been worked on by over 20 artists. It's part grandiose mythology and part humour - majestic looking stallions, yes, but there are also little explorer figurines toward the top of the 3.5 m tall structure moving toward the bottle of Guinness hidden in the heart of it, underneath the lace and crystal "foam".  

Guinness Made of More Sculpture

After all this indoctrination, we were feeling thirsty and peckish, so we took one escalator after another towards the fifth floor where the eateries were located. Arthur's Bar caught our eye at first, but once D saw the Bistro with service next door that got him rather more excited, so there we went. 

Gilroy's Restaurant was inspired by the artist John Gilroy, who did the Guinness advertising posters up until the 1960s, including that of the iconic Guinness animals, still seen in pubs up and down Ireland. The restaurant is decorated with blown up posters of the Gilroy illustrations, and the menus have the Guinness Toucan on the back. Our waitress was utterly lovely and let M bring one menu back with us after seeing how taken M was with the picture. She's thinking of framing it up and putting it in our kitchen back home once she gets back. 

The different foods each came with their own suggested beer pairings, so we deferred to their expert knowledge and ordered the Extra Stout and Foreign Extra Stout to go with our dishes. To counter claims that Guinness was an English brew, Benjamin Lee Guinness adopted the harp as their emblem to clearly indicate the brand's Irish heritage, although it hasn't been the only motif to grace the bottles of stout through the years. My great-grandmother was an avid drinker of Guinness Foreign Extra (I like to imagine we share a similar taste for hops), and in her time the bottles in Singapore came emblazoned with Alsatians with their tongues sticking out. 

Gilroy's Restaurant Guinness Storehouse

Most of the dishes (Save possibly the chicken salad) had been spruced up with a generous helping of Guinness during the cooking process. We got a portion of their famous Beef & Guinness Stew to share, and as our tour through Ireland has progressed, D still thinks this was the best stew we've had so far. With sweet chunks of carrots, tender bite-sized pieces of beef, smooth mash and buttery cabbage, it was a very satisfying dish. The thick and savoury gravy had Guinness Foreign Extra added to it, with the hops supposed to add some nice floral overtones to the overall flavour. 

Gilroy's Restaurant Guinness Storehouse

M went for the seafood chowder, which was generously studded through with bits of salmon and shellfish, and came with a side of sweet Guinness soda bread. 

Gilroy's Restaurant

We also shared a big plate of Mussels in a Cream & Guinness sauce. 

We don't even like cream sauces, but this was good. As the first of many hearty Irish meals, our lunch was a very pleasant introduction to the cuisine.

For dessert, I had the mini blueberry cheesecake, which was all I could stomach by the end of the meal. 

M had Guinness ice-cream with stewed berries, where the coffee-caramel tones and hint of bitterness provided an excellent counterpoint to the sweetness of the berries. 

Our cab driver to the Storehouse had worked as a barman before, and made sure to give us a crash course on the proper way to pull a pint, so we weren't entirely surprised when at the Gravity Bar, we had to wait a while for D's pint. There's a proper way of serving Guinness, and six steps are involved in the pulling of the perfect pint, one of which is waiting for the surge to settle before topping up the glass. Nitrogen helps to create the bubbles that form the creamy foam top, far tinier than those formed by Carbon Dioxide.

Pushing past all the French students sullenly nursing glasses of Coca Cola, we could see the views of the city from the floor to ceiling windows of the bar. The day was overcast, but that didn't stop us from enjoying the view.  

The entrance tickets allows visitors to choose between enjoying a pint or a soft drink at the Gravity Bar, or learning how to pull one at the Guinness Academy. With three in our party, we could enjoy the best of both worlds, and M & D followed me down to the Academy bar to provide moral support as I pulled my pint along with a batch of eleven other students. There, I learned that the most important bit of knowledge isn't the best angle fill the glass or how long to wait for the surge to settle, but knowing which glass belongs to who. At the end of it I collected my certificate, and drank a smooth, smooth glass of stout, all the tastier for having pulled it perfectly myself. At this point my phone died, and all of D's pictures of the special Connoisseur Bar are terrible (His phone wasn't made for picture taking at all), so you'll have to imagine the luxurious, leather-clad bar, hidden away in a corner of the fourth floor so discreet, we had to be walked there by staff members after getting hopelessly lost. 

The Connoisseur Experience was easily the quickest 45 minutes of our lives, and began with the Black Lager specially formulated for the American market (The weakest of the Guinness range we felt), and we stuck around just long enough for a short history of the Guinness family and a glass of the draft beer. Andrew ran the tasting, and made sure to cover as much as he could once he found we weren't going to stick around for long. Our tour guide had painted a picture of fire and brimstone if we didn't turn up to dinner on time, so it was with heavy hearts that we ducked out of the guided tasting session and went to find M at the gift shop. 

We left with two bottles each of the Extra Stout and Foreign Extra Stout that would have been part of the tasting experience in a little gift bag that also included food tasting notes. D & I still sigh over the tragedy of the incomplete experience, but I suppose it gives us even more reason to come back to Dublin someday. 

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