Saturday, March 19, 2005

On the pouring of pints

Isn't it funny how memory connections are made?

An online writer friend of mine was asking, in jest, if the 'flames blowing out of the CD slot' on his new Mac Mini were normal? It's his first Mac, as he's always been a Windows man.

Being a longtime Machead myself, I replied 'yes, you've just switched on the barbecue function; and there's an undocumented icemaker in there somewhere too, while the draught beer outlet has to be linked up to a firkin'.

All a little bit of nonsense, of course. But that last word brought memories tiptoeing back.

When I was growing up in the pub business, the firkin was a smaller version of the aluminium keg now used to hold draught beers, mostly Guinness then.

And instead of a single connector on the top, it had two on the side, one to take the gas supply and the other leading to the dispenser, then a stainless steel 'cooler' that sat on the counter and in a series of trays inside caused the high Guinness to settle a little before it went through a tap into the glass. It worked pretty well unless we got really busy, and then everything coming out was white and we had to dismantle the unit and clear off accumulated foam.

It was high-tech for its time, though in these days of carefully metered and chilled beer dispensing it seems quite archaic. And while we called it a 'cooler', there was at that time no question of actually cooling Guinness.

However, I have two strong memories of even less sophisticated methods of dispensing the 'black stuff'. The first, as a very small child, when escaping in behind the bar of my aunts' pub. I still have a clear vision of the copper sink with a copper jug in it, and a brace of old beer 'pump' handles fixed to the timber of the bar.

There was no gas in those days. The Guinness came in wooden kegs which stacked in a cellar and the beer was literally pumped up out of them. In the course of which the copper sink would end up with quite a load of it swilling around after the pint glasses were topped off.

Every so often the copper jug would be sluiced through the sink, picking up the filling of a couple or three pints which would be used to half fill the glasses before the pumped and foamy fresh-from-the-barrel Guinness was used to top them off.

Nobody thought any the worse of it, though there's no doubt but that anyone doing that today would lose every customer they had in very short order.

Later, in my teens, I used to work summers down in the Royal Hotel on Valentia Island.

Most of the time I worked in the Residents' Bar. There was no draught Guinness there, anybody wanting the black stuff had to drink it from bottles.

But there was draught in the Locals' Bar. And though we were in those days well ahead in gas-pumped Guinness right around the country, the logistics and probably the cost of getting an adequate supply of gas across the sound to Knightstown meant this system wasn't realistic.

So we used a variation on the system I remembered from my childhood. There were no beer pumps made any more, so gravity had to be used.

It went like this. Two firkins would be set up on the bar counter, the side openings facing in to the barman. There were even natty plastic covers available to take the bad look off the little barrels.

A brass beer tap would be pushed into the bottom bung hole on each. Initially, there was enough pressure from inside the firkin to push out a fairly creamy product, which at first took a fair bit of time to settle. There was a stainless steel jug under each tap to catch the overflow, and these would be used from time to time to add more 'flat'.

When one of the firkins was only pouring flat itself, the initial pressure gone, the other would be brought into use, and then through the evening the pints would be filled by alternately pouring flat and foamy from the respective firkins. If we kept it going right, the 'flat' one would empty just about the time the second one became flat itself. Then it was a case of heaving a new firkin up in place of the empty and the sequence started all over again.

Everybody thought tthey were great pints. Still, if we tried that one on today ...?

... at least these days, there's a bridge to the island and proper roads, so delivery of the modern beer is no problem.

I've just remembered one last item in this vein. After leaving school, having always wanted to be a pilot, I got to go to England for an interview and tests with a view to joining the RAF.

A vision imbalance from a childhood eye operation knocked me out at the end of the four-day process, and it was homeward bound for yours truly.

But not immediately. The RAF had paid for my train ticket from Ireland to London, and the return was good for three months. So I decided to get a job in London for the duration, see a bit more of the world.

I eventually got in as a junior barman in Mooney's of High Holborn, one of a chain of Irish-owned bars in the capital at the time.

It was an easy enough number, with most of the business being the provision of a watering hole and lunch space for the office workers of the area. At night it was pretty dead, with just a few regulars.

I can't remember his name, and it's probably just as well, but the manager was a Londoner who didn't have any of the grace of the Irish publicans I knew back home. He was a condescending bollocks, actually, who had no business running what purported to be an Irish pub.

And he had a particular instruction. There were maybe six different beers on tap in the bar, two of which were Guinness, all with their own drip trays.

Every afternoon and night time, after each closing, we had to empty all the trays into an enamel bucket. The Guinness gave the whole mix a blackish colour, and the boss's order was that this should be used up, by the jugfull, in filling pints of Guinness during the lunch trade the next day, before any 'straight' pint could be poured. It was easy enough to do, because in the quiet before the rush of lunch hour it was common to get a stack of pints nearly ready so they could be topped off and served quickly to the guys nipping in for their fast lunch. You could set your clock by them, so it was dead easy to have the pints ready not a lot of minutes before they arrived.

Of course, in the case of a pint for the guv'nor and a couple of his cronies, this wasn't to be done.

None of us liked it, but jobs were scarce enough and it was part of the job and he was the boss. In the end, after a month, I told him I wouldn't do it any more, that it was a lousy and shameful practice.

We verbally fought about my stance for a month or so. It didn't matter to me, I was going home anyway. And I did eventually.

It's funny, he didn't even threaten to fire me. I guess he knew I didn't care, that I was only in for the short haul, and I could have easily done him damage by coming back in as a customer and letting every one of the lunchtime regular Guinness drinkers know what they were getting.

So he wasn't a total eejit.

And I was, at that time, still not ready to be a serious stirrer of s**te.

As I said, it's funny how memories connect ...

©2005 Brian Byrne.

1 comment:

Tom Morrisey said...

Thanks for that memory, Brian.

By the way, I'm thinking of painting a Union Jack on top of that Mac, so it looks like a proper Mini.


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