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Cover Story: Cold Beer, Hot Days

In search of the best pint of Guinness in Greater Cincinnati

By Rodger Pille · June 2nd, 2004 · Cover Story
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Summer is and will always be beer season. This is both from the consumer side -- who doesn't enjoy a frosty mug on a muggy night? -- and from the supply side. The brewing industry estimates that beer sales climb as much as 30 percent between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

So, this being the Hot Issue and all, what's the hot beer right now and where can locals find it?

Bottom line: Nothing is hotter than Guinness. With its "Brilliant!" ad campaign everywhere you look, it seems like Saint Paddy's day every day. But as any real Guinness aficionado will tell you, this isn't a beer you just pour and drink.

For those not in the know, the perfect pint consists of several things. Deviating from just one tradition -- the proper pour, the right amount of head, the temperature -- can greatly impact the entire experience.

And you thought Guinness lovers were just slovenly souls who despised their livers? Oh, no. We're beer critics with a highly developed sense of taste and an appreciation for the art of alcohol! OK, we do despise our livers a bit.

The good news for local Guinness drinkers is there are several gin joints around town that serve it "on draught." And let's be honest: If you're savvy enough to want Guinness, you certainly don't want it poured from a can or, worse, a bottle.

CityBeat assembled a Guinness taste test team that scoured the hills of Cincinnati seeking the perfect pint. While young on paper, this crew has collectively drunk the dark stuff for over 50 years. Included in the group were two green-blooded Irishmen -- both named Sean, go figure -- and other men who wish they were.

In selecting the stops, the team sought a geographic mix and made sure to include some of most obvious Guinness locales in town, the Irish pubs. Since this was strictly about the beer itself, however, non-Irish bars were included as well.

Bars would get discounted if they didn't stay true to the "Irishness" of the presentation, as you'll read. All told, a baker's dozen of Guinness-serving bars were visited over the course of four nights. The obvious concern was that, after three pints in one night, the data could get faulty.

In an attempt to quantify the results of this search, each drinker on Team Guinness rated one pint from each stop on a scale of 1 to 10 in three different categories: taste, atmosphere and presentation. We also noted separately the price per ounce, in case a Guinness fan on a bender is also on a budget.

The category scores were averaged together and then averaged with the other categories to derive each bar's final Guinness score. See the accompanying chart for the final tally.

Taste
As proven by the scores, this category proved difficult to measure.

Guinness is, after all, much like sex and ice cream: even bad experiences are still pretty damn good. That should explain why no one rated a pint lower than 6 in taste.

What ended up separating the highest average taste score from the lowest was a lack of bitterness, a smooth texture and a cold but not freezing temperature. Some of the lower scoring pints seemed a little flat, too, so the scores reflected that.

Hap's Irish Pub in Hyde Park was found to serve the smoothest beer in the bunch, while The Pub at Rookwood and Crowley's in Mount Adams came in a close second and third, respectively. The team determined that one could drink several pints from any of the three without any sign of bitter beer face.

It's no wonder that Hap's seems always to have a native Irishman in the bar somewhere. That can only be seen as a ringing endorsement for the taste.

Atmosphere
We included this category only as it related to the enjoyment of a good pint. The question was simply asked, "Does the atmosphere of the bar enhance or detract from the Guinness experience?"

Each bar was graded accordingly. While non-Irish bars weren't intentionally downgraded in this category, we couldn't help but score the green-friendly pubs a little better.

Topping this list was The Dubliner in Pleasant Ridge. With Guinness mirrors and signs aplenty, loads of seating, dim lighting and a wood-burning fireplace, it was the unanimous favorite location for the taste test team. On the night we dropped in, there was even an informal music lesson underway in the front room.

Nicholson's Tavern downtown also fared well for its Celtic authenticity. A kilted doorman should count for something.

Hap's rounds out the top scorers for atmosphere, thanks in large part to its televised world soccer coverage. While it was a tad too smoky to enjoy the subtleties of a good Guinness draught, Hap's does boast the surliest barkeep this side of the River Liffey.

Team Guinness decided that a good pint should be served either by a cute Irish lass -- preferably named Shannon or Colleen or the like -- or by a surly Irishman who speaks only when spoken to. Hap's has the latter in aces.

For the record, The Dubliner and Claddagh Pub in Newport on the Levee have the Irish lass thing covered.

Presentation
The grading in this category seemed much less subjective. The taste team was looking for a pure Irish presentation of the pint.

That involved closely watching each pour to make sure the bartender drew three quarters of the glass at a 45-degree angle, waited for it to settle, then drew the top quarter and waited for it to settle before delivering. Bonus points were given when the beer was served in an official Guinness pint glass, preferably the 20-ounce tulip-shaped variety.

Of all the stops, only one bar in the land cared enough to carve a shamrock in the beer foam before presenting it, and for that reason Claddagh Pub received highest honors in this category. The pour at Claddagh is a thing of beauty.

The bartenders -- nay, artists -- draw the perfect pint as if sculpting a masterpiece. It almost makes you feel guilty for drinking the beer once it arrives. But that quickly passes.

Hap's and The Dubliner scored high on presentation as well. The bartenders in both instances took their time on the pour, fighting the urge to quickly draw a beer and get to the next customer.

The vast majority of bars visited gave a "token" traditional pour at best, waiting hardly any time in between fillings. The team was deeply shocked to see the barman at R.P. McMurphy's in Hyde Park pour the entire pint in one fall swoop, then serve it to us even before it settled. Note to McMurphy bartenders: You can't treat Guinness like it's Bud Light. Show some respect.

Value
A few of the taste test team are fairly thrifty fellows, so it was decided that readers should see how the going rate for a pint of Guinness varies bar to bar. Since some pubs serve 20-ounce pints and others 16-ounce pints, the only apples-to-apples comparison would be to calculate the price per ounce.

Arnold's Bar and Grille downtown and McMurphy's won the value category, each coming in at 20 cents per ounce. The team agreed that $4 for a 20-ounce pint was quite affordable, if price were your only concern.

O'Bryon's Irish Pub in O'Bryonville and Milton's Tavern on Liberty Hill came in last at 27 cents per ounce (the equivalent of $5.40 per 20-ouncer.) Even for a premium import like Guinness, that seems steep.

And the Winner Is...
It shouldn't be surprising that, after averaging all the scores from all the categories, Hap's would be crowned king of the Guinness draught. It ranked in the top three of each category, won the taste category and is generally regarded as the most authentically Irish pub in Cincinnati. Plus, at just 21 cents per ounce, it's an affordable pint.

Coming in a close second place was Claddagh Pub, buoyed by its nearly perfect presentation score. Since it's tucked away from most of the action in the Levee, not too many people have visited it. But if you're looking for a good place for after-dinner drinks or want to grab a pint and talk about the movie you just saw, Claddagh is your stop.

The Dubliner, The Pub at Rookwood and Crowley's round out the top five with strong showings in each category. The truth is you can't get a bad pint from any of them.

Arnold's, Nicholson's and Champions in Western Hills constitute the second tier of Guinness servers. All are good but not great places to grab a pint.

Murphy's Pub in Clifton Heights, Jack Quinn's Restaurant in Covington and O'Bryon's have some work to do, especially on the presentation side of things. And Milton's and R.P. McMurphy's should be forced to give back their Guinness-approved taps. ©

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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