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Book Review

A Pint of Plain

Tradition, Change, and the Fate of the Irish Pub by Bill Barich

Author Bill Barich takes us on a journey through the Irish countryside in search of the perfect pint of Guinness in a classic village pub as epitomized in the John Ford movie The Quiet Man. Along the way, Barich interweaves the history of brewing in Ireland pre-dating the Norman invasions, and discusses the influences of law and society that created the classic early 20th century pub.

Two themes reappear throughout: drink and drive laws are effectively removing authentic pubs from rural Ireland; while at the same time Diageo-Guinness USA's Irish Pub Concept is proliferating a facsimile of an authentic pub to an international consumer market.

The government of Ireland has been increasing their intolerance to drink driving, to the point that it is virtually impossible to have a single pint and legally drive home. In rural areas, this effectively shrinks a potential customer base from miles to minutes away.

Barich's disdain of the Irish Pub Concept is clear. The for-profit model essentially sells the concept of an Irish pub in kit form, from the menu to the name. As a business, this has found global popularity worldwide, resulting in Irish pubs from Amsterdam to Guam. Their very popularity seems to offend Barich to his core.

What Barich doesn't seem to understand, or chooses to ignore, is that the pub experience is as much about the individual customer as it is the owner, building and dłęcor. His quest to find a classic pub was doomed from the start, because Ireland and its people have changed: There are more opportunities, both in careers and entertainment. It's no less offensive that pubs of 2009 differ from their 1909 predecessors, than its offensive that the pubs of 1909 are nearly unrecognizable from the tavern equivalents of the 12th century. I suspect that if Barich had been a dockworker trading rounds after his shift a hundred years ago, that he would have been too busy mourning the loss of a favorite pub ritual, to appreciate what was in front of him. Beyond the pint of Guinness, that is.

Barich also seems to be under the impression that patrons of the Irish Pub Concept become patrons out of a misguided belief that are experiencing a true Irish pub. When I travel, I am often drawn to Irish pubs. I do this not because of the dłęcor, or the music, or because I think I will soak up a wee bit of the old country. Rather, Irish pubs are often a reasonable substitute to microbreweries and brewpubs. I can assume that they will offer at least a few imports in bottles or on tap, so I won't be stuck with the accessible menu of Buds and Millers that eclipse most bars and restaurant menus. And I can also reasonably assume that the food will be more than burgers and fries.

By the end of the book, the quest for the perfect pub and pint seems to exhaust Barich, and he actually loses his taste for beer.

I understand completely. I savored the book's opening chapters, but as I neared the end, I was ready to be done.


More book reviews:

A Pint of Plain
Tradition, Change, and the Fate of the Irish Pub

The Practical Guide to Beer Fermentation

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Please drink responsibly — don't drink and drive.