Beer Travelers Home

Where to drink
Brewpubs & bars
Where to buy
Beer stores
Where it's made
Where we've been
Adventures & pub crawls
From behind the bar
The business of beer

Find it in Beer Travelers:

Site map
About us
Contact us
Nominate a spot


One pint at a time

A day in the life of a Guinness draft technician

It's 4 o'clock on a fall afternoon, and it appears that Guinness draft technician Ken O'Callaghan has picked the perfectly wrong time to walk into this small Chicago tavern. The owner holds a pint of Guinness in her hand, and the head is well above the top of the glass, looking like a tan pompadour on a 1950s rock 'n' roll hero.

The owner is not happy, and she lets the whole bar know it. O'Callaghan heads almost immediately for the cellar, down winding stairs that may predate Prohibition, past cases of Old Style beer and to a corner of the cellar, where cans of gas sit like old World War II bombs. He checks the pressure gauge. It should be set at 30 pounds per square inch; it's at 45.

"We're going to catch people one by one. One day, you're not drinking Guinness. Then you try it, and you're drinking Guinness for the rest of your life."

He pulls out his Fyrete Gas Analyzer to check the proportion of nitrogen to carbon dioxide in the gas. It should be 75 percent nitrogen; it's 59 percent. "Overcarbonated, overpressurized," he says, turning down the pressure.

Back upstairs, he phones in an order for a fresh can of gas -- one that will produce the proper ratio of nitrogen and CO2. He finds the owner has left, so he explains this to the bartender. He asks her if she knows how to pour a pint properly, and if the spout is cleaned regularly. She nods yes to both, but without conviction. So O'Callaghan shows her how a two-part pour begins, then while the beer settles, he quickly disassembles the spout, cleans it and puts it back together to finish the pour.

He hands over a lovely-looking pint to a smiling customer. A man at the bar puts down his bottle of Miller Lite and says he'd like a taste. O'Callaghan pours a small glass. "Get your lip under the head and give it a good taste," he says, his Old Country accent lending authority. "Then try it again tomorrow (with the new gas). It will be better."

"I'll be here," says the man. He's probably been sitting at the same stool most every day for 20-some years, and he's never had a Guinness before.

What brewer doesn't think he or she could get a regular customer if that customer would just try the beer once? And what brewer doesn't want to be certain that bars and restaurants are treating his or her beer properly so that first pint won't be the last?

Draft technicians are part of the Guinness Import Co.'s commitment to a properly poured pint. O'Callaghan was one of 12 technicians employed at the beginning of 1996, and the plan was to have 20 by the end of the year. He works out of Chicago (Guinness has 500 accounts in the metropolitan area), but he may find himself in Detroit one day and Kansas City, Mo., the next. Draft technicians show bartenders how to pour a pint, they preach about the importance of clean glassware and clean lines, about serving Guinness at the right temperature (stored at 38 degrees Fahrenheit, poured at 44), and they emphasize the importance of a fresh product. But none of it will matter if the beer isn't pushed by the right combination of nitrogen and CO2.

"The directive from our president is to get the gas situation solved in our top 25 markets," O'Callaghan says. Sometimes that means convincing a publican to convert from a compressed-air system to one using mixed gas. Other times, it's a matter of changing from all-CO2 to mixed gas. It's not necessary to have both CO2 and nitrogen tanks -- gas is available premixed.

Guinness isn't alone when it comes to quality control. Every employee at Summit Brewing Co. in Minnesota attends a sensory evalutation course in Chicago.

At least it's supposed to be mixed. Just this morning, O'Callaghan has discovered a problem. He visited the gas supplier he has been recommending to bars, watched workers fill tanks with 75 percent nitrogen and 25 percent C02, then tested the cans in action and discovered the gas was coming out 90 percent CO2 at the faucet.

"If they roll the cans, then the mix is right," O'Callaghan says. "From now on, they are going to roll the cans."

Of course, Guinness isn't the only beer that stood to gain from his discovery. That same gas pushes all the other beer a bar serves. In fact, some bars promote themselves by boasting they use a "G-mix" for all their craft beers. Nitrogen delivers beer with smaller bubbles. "If the gas isn't broken down, the beer fills you up more," O'Callaghan says. "Then people say, 'I'm not drinking this beer anymore. (Guinness) is this heavy beer people have been talking about.' "

Most American craft breweries are too small to think about putting representatives in the field, let alone arming them with Fyrete Gas Analyzers. The ones that come up with an alternative are rewarded in the marketplace. Summit Brewing Co. in St. Paul, Minn., boosted its sales from 10,500 barrels in 1993 to 14,000 in 1994 to nearly 20,000 in 1995. The brewery has succeeded by staying close to home and taking care of its beer -- 92 percent of sales are in the seven counties around Minneapolis-St. Paul, and 60 percent of the sales are draft beer. More than 250 bars and restaurants in the area offer Summit on tap.

"We make a lot of market visits to see how our beer is being handled," says sales manager Jeffrey Spaeth. Every one of Summit's full-time employees attends a sensory evaluation course at the Siebel Institute of Technology. They learn to detect off-tastes and the reasons for the tastes. Employees evaluate beer before it leaves the brewery, then again in the marketplace.

O'Callaghan lives in the marketplace. When he first moved to Chicago from Ireland in 1995, his goal was to get the Irish bars pouring Guinness properly. On this day, his next stop is at an Irish bar with four handles for Guinness. As he begins to work on the mystery of why the Guinness has been "off" here the last few days, patrons bombard him with the questions he hears over and over. A guy drinking Budweiser asks: The Guinness sold in the United States and the Guinness sold in Ireland are different, right? "No," O'Callaghan answers. "They're both brewed at St. James Gate in Dublin."

Another Bud drinker joins in: But Guinness is served at room temperature in Ireland, right? "Actually, it's served a little warmer in the United States," O'Callaghan explains, smiling. This time the two men asking the questions show no interest in trying a beer they can't see through.

At this bar, the owner knows how a good Guinness should taste, and the pints are off. O'Callaghan heads down another set of rickety stairs, to a basement with a low ceiling and a hand-built cooler.

The gas passes the test. The lines are due to be cleaned (the cleaning service failed to show up last week), but this off-taste doesn't seem to be from dirty lines. O'Callaghan checks the date on the keg -- a distributor had sent the bar beer that was older than Guinness recommends serving. He shows the bar owner how to read the date on the bung and tells him to return the beer to the distributor.

"I view this as a baby market. The American consumer is becoming much more knowledgeable."

Here the owner cares about the Guinness he serves. "A lot of the problem is apathy," O'Callaghan said. "The boss is already making plenty of money, and there's such a turnover of staff. But for every bar that improves, another will have to."

O'Callaghan is 25 years old but is a Guinness veteran. He began tending bar at 16, in a place with 65 taps -- 16 of them for Guinness. He sometimes sounds like a craft brewer. "I view this as a baby market," he said. "The American consumer is becoming much more knowledgeable."

Craft breweries grabbed attention for themselves in the '90s by increasing sales 50 percent per year while overall beer sales were stagnant. Guinness has done nearly as well, growing more than 25 percent per year each of the last three years. These are both competitors and allies. Obviously, drinking Guinness and drinking other flavorful beers are not mutually exclusive.

Guinness has nearly 250 years of brewing tradition and a massive advertising budget on its side. Craft brewers have mostly people's curiosity. They're both looking for the same chance.

"We're going to catch people one by one. One day, you're not drinking Guinness. Then you try it, and you're drinking Guinness for the rest of your life," O'Callaghan says. "But a bad pint, that's another story.

"Let's say Joe's bar doesn't present the best product. You're there, you say, 'Tonight, I'm going to try a Guinness.' You try it here and you decide you're never going to try it again. We just want a fair shot, then let the consumer make his decision."

This story is based on one September 1995 day in the life of a Guinness technician.

Find an Irish pub - more than 300 to choose from

Copyright 1994-2007, Beer Travelers
Contact us