A perfect pint of Guinness. Photo: Simon Schluter Enjoying the company and the refreshment at the Drunken Poet in West Melbourne. Photo: Gary Medlicott
If you, like me, enjoy a beer and have spent time in Ireland (and let’s face it, many who tour the Emerald Isle do so for the drink, with its beauty and aura a secondary consideration), chances are you’ll have been given earnest, even passionate, advice on where to find the best pint.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re in Dublin or Moylough (a village in county Galway with four pubs and little else), there’ll always be one or more pubs – usually places not overrun by tourists, where the Guinness runs through the lines like water through a tap and where the live music isn’t broadcast on a blackboard out front with the precursor ”traditional” – that are widely spruiked.
Given Melbourne’s love of beer and our strong affiliation with Ireland – highlighted every St Patrick’s Day when city workers and barflies mingle with ex-pats and working-holidaymakers in our city’s myriad Irish pubs – do we have a pub with claims to the perfect pint, where beer-line-cleanliness is next to godliness, and where the Guinness is on par with, say, Mulligan’s in Dublin?
Yes, according to Peter Mitcham, an amicable and quick-witted house-husband and beer expert with the best freelance gig in the world (”I get paid to drink and write about beer – I’m so used to it now I no longer feel the need to brag about it”), who is assisting me in finding an answer to this question. We’re no sooner settled into our seats and first pints (of Matilda Bay Itchy Green Pants; a fruity, highly drinkable pale ale) at our meeting point, P.J. O’Brien’s in Southbank, when he dispels my long-held theory about Guinness being best in its native country.
While he says some places don’t look after their lines as they should, ”[Guinness] is brewed here in Australia the same way as in Dublin, and the rating system used by [Guinness’ Australian producers] Lion is the same at each pub – whether it’s here, or at St James’ Gate Brewery.”
He believes enjoyment of a pint is primarily dictated by other factors, such as the atmosphere of the pub, or the occasion. ”You’ll always enjoy your beer more if you’re at a good pub and in good company,” he says.
There’s a gentle hum around us, even though P.Js – a popular and spacious burst of Irishness nestled in the Southgate entertainment precinct – is filling up. Our conversation swings from the place’s authenticity – Guinness placards, wooden panelling, Irish-accented bartenders, Setanta Sports on the TV – to the rise of craft beer. He links the slow-food movement, and a growing interest in farmers’ markets and beer-and-food matching – ”where once upon a time it was a green can and a pie at the footy” – to the trend.
”Look, there’s nothing wrong with VB and Carlton Draught, but they’re ‘for drinkin’, not for thinkin’.” He holds up his half-drunk pint to the light and gives it a little shake. ”There’s a bit of aroma here, it’s a little cloudy, there’s an Australian-developed hop called Galaxy …”
I comment that many craft beers taste sweeter than their production-line counterparts; that I lose my enthusiasm after a few. Mitcham nods. ”It’s all about the prominence of the hops,” he says, adding that boutique beers actually have less added sugar in comparison to the mainstream product.
”And yes,” he concludes, ”[craft beers] aren’t necessarily conducive to binge-drinking sessions – which isn’t such a bad thing.”
Our next port of call is the Sherlock Holmes Inn in Collins Street, a minimalist, olde-England-influenced, basement bar with a smattering of drinkers on bar stools and a two-level spread of tables occupied by hushed early diners and not-so-hushed late-lunchers. It does a good trade and is renowned for its fresh beer.
We clink our glasses, this time filled with Little Creatures Bright Ale. ”Oh, I nearly forgot,” Mitcham says, handing me an envelope with the handwritten words ”Pete’s Perfect Pint Prediction” on the front. ”Don’t open this until tomorrow.”
My brother-in-law Phil – a seasoned drinker whose advertising nous I thought may prove invaluable – joins us. Mitcham and Phil get acquainted and the conversation soon turns to the focus of sponsorship in the ever-changing world of beer-brewing.
”The bigger breweries are more about sponsorship than the contents of the beer,” Mitcham says. It leaves the boutique brewers able to pitch themselves to drinkers as a quality, artisan product – and little more expensive, but worth it.
Noting a young man handing over $10 for a Corona, Mitcham agrees with Phil’s reasoning that many drink it for the aesthetically pleasing clear bottle. ”No doubt it has its place – when consumed very cold on a very hot day – but in reality it’s a poor beer masked by lemon or lime, bought by men who like to be seen to be drinking a beer, but don’t actually like the taste of beer.”
We drink enthusiastically, our conversation moving somewhat inevitably, to women – in particular their drinking habits.
Says Mitcham: ”The female palate is more sophisticated, more attuned than that of a male. The modern girl doesn’t want to be told what to drink, and doesn’t want to be given fruity, pissy beers or girlie drinks; they’ll go for Belgian ales, saisons; and beers that are poured in female-friendly shaped glasses, even champagne flute-style glasses. The ones who haven’t discovered craft beers go for cider.”
Mitcham’s beer-related history lesson continues, touching on hops, and the impact shipping has – no matter how short the distance – on beer.
”The Germans have a saying: you should only drink beer in the shadow of a brewery.”
After all the earlier talk about Guinness, it’s time to order one. As we watch the barmaid do her thing (filling the glass three-quarters full before placing on the bar for the ”surge and settle” effect to take hold), a young – and obviously thirsty – woman is handed her just-topped-up pint … and commits the crime of any Guinness drinker: not waiting for the bubbles in the body of the pint to disappear; therefore subjecting herself to what Mitcham refers to as ”coffee-grounds bitterness”.
Mitcham notes the lack of shamrock in the head of the pints handed to us. ”The shamrock is the test of a good bartender,” he says, ”and the test of a good Guinness is for the shamrock to remain until the bottom.” No, Ireland’s most recognisable symbol isn’t on show here, but each sip leaves a ring on the inside of the glass – another pleasing sign – and it tastes fresh and, most importantly, the conversation is good, all the way down.
We exit the building, a buzz in our heads and step, and, having made the decision to forgo visits to the Irish Times and Mitre Tavern as planned, hail a cab to Carlton: a suburb more known for Italian restaurants than Irish pubs, but, to be sure, it has several worthy ones.
Our cabbie pauses at the Corkman on Leicester Place, a ripping little pub with excellent Paddy’s Day entertainment, but bafflingly, it’s closed to the general public on weekends. I should have done the research but, really, what sort of pub is closed on a Saturday afternoon?
So it’s on to the Dan O’Connell instead, one of Melbourne’s most iconic Irish watering holes and home to its biggest St Patrick’s Day celebration. Every year it takes on a celebration of rock-concert proportions. Thousands spill out of the pub and into the adjoining park, where live entertainment starts early afternoon and maintains a frenetic pace well into the night.
Today it’s a little more low-key, with a small number of drinkers in the public bar and a few groups at tables out the front and in the grungy beer garden. But Dan’s isn’t confined to a typical Irish template; its interior is unremarkable in a wholesome way, while the craft beer selection is as inspired as it is long. It’s here we sample two home-grown, American-style pale ales – the Hawthorne IPA, a perfectly balanced brew with just the right injection of malt to contrast the citrus; and the Mildura Brewery Storm Ale, a full-bodied, copper-coloured brew that draws the praise of the bartender and Mitcham – while being entertained by leathery local (in face and garb) Grant McCracken, an Irishman who runs a poetry event in the pub every Saturday afternoon.
McCracken’s choice of tipple, Thunder Road’s limited-release dark rum ale, prompts Mitcham to talk us through the virtues of whisky- and wine-infused beer. But Mitcham’s voice gives way to the hard-living and hoarse Irish lilt of McCracken’s, and in between sips of beer that coat his ragged beard, our new friend reels off an animated, poetic history of the pub before another local – one of many who know McCracken by name – recites a poem dedicated to the man himself.
We’re having a blast, but it’s time to move on. As we exit the building to hail a cab on busy Alexandra Parade, I tell McCracken to meet us at the Drunken Poet later. McCracken shakes his head: ”I was kicked out of the Drunken Poet once … for being a drunken poet!”
From here it’s a frantic procession of cabs, loud music and, of course, Guinness. Brunswick’s Snug Public House, situated in Sydney Road, is aptly named: the brick-walled front bar is a cosy squeeze of bar stools, sectioned-off booths and beer paraphernalia. Run by an Irish couple and frequented by Irish Melburnians whose voices seem to harmonise with the fiddle-prominent music, the place carries itself with an air of authenticity in line with its website’s mantra: ”A little bit of Ireland in the heart of Brunswick”. It’s great ”craic”, but after two pints we’re back in a cab, headed for our ”settle-in” destination.
The Drunken Poet is heaving when we walk in. Punters crowd the lengthy, pint-scattered service area, their focus torn between trying to catch the eyes of the two run-ragged barmaids and the melodic mongrel-rock of rising four-piece the Shivering Timbers.
The crowd is prominently 20-something, and many are clutching pints of Guinness, indicating two things: it’s a good place for the ink-black stuff (crisp, fresh and so wholesome that, in our case, dinner has long been forgotten); and the appeal of Ireland’s national drink isn’t lost on the next generation.
Later, several more beers to the good and with the witching hour looming, we call it a night, and Mitcham and I, strangers only hours before, shake hands with a warmth that brings to mind a quote by W.B. Yeats: ”There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t yet met.”
The following afternoon I’m in a quiet corner of Flemington’s ever-reliable Irish boozer, the Quiet Man, a hair-of-the-dog Bulmers and ice to hand. I tear open Mitcham’s hand-written envelope and, despite my hangover, find myself smiling.
His perfect pint prediction? ”The beer (whatever it may be) that we had in the third pub we visited.”
I think back to the Dan O’Connell and those titillating craft beers, the three of us straddling that delicate line between the buzz of ”a few” and the slur-riddled freefall of ”a few too many”.
Mitcham has it nailed: the perfect pint is one that’s savoured in a good pub in good company, early in proceedings; not one being hoofed down in the pursuit of inebriation. It’s an old chestnut, quantity over quality, but something to consider on March 17.