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Passion for Homebrewing

Imagine, if you will, that you’re a weary traveler in an unfamiliar city somewhere in the United States. You’re hungry, thirsty, and tired when a familiar sign catches your eye…an Irish Pub! You rush towards the door, excited for the warm, hospitable environment and anticipating a cheerful conversation with locals over a perfectly poured pint of Guinness. But as you enter the establishment your hopes and dreams are instantly dashed as you become painfully aware that this is an Irish Pub only by name and really more of a sports bar in pub clothing. You are blinded by the glare of 35 flat-screen TVs all playing ESPN, Judge Judy, or Doctor Phil. The walls are haphazardly covered in random objects, and the jukebox is blaring the most recent pop sensation. A few shamrocks are worked into the décor and the placemats feature a map of Ireland, which gives the average customer just enough hope that the pint might not be half bad…but you’re wrong again. You are served a pint of Guinness in an off-brand shaker pint and about half the beer is foam. Defeated, you sadly sip at your “Guinness” as the patron next to you stares endlessly at their phone, swiping right every few seconds. You yearn for the authenticity of a true Irish pub and wonder what sort of magic differentiates a true pub from a bar like this?

It begs the question…Where did the pub tradition actually come from?”

Like most things in the western world, the roots of the pub can be traced back to the Romans. As the Roman Empire expanded into Celtic Europe they built roads to make it easier for their armies and merchants and colonists to travel. On these roads, every 20 miles or so, there would be a “Tabernae”…or “Tavern”. All cultures prior to the Romans had drinking establishments, but this is the one that most influenced modern Pubs. These Taverns were a lot like hostels where one could get a square meal, a nights rest, and enjoy the company of others. Recently archeologist uncovered one of these Taverns in Lattes, France that dates back 2001 years! The discovery of the tavern included two large flatbread ovens, large serving platters, and the remains of fish, sheep, and cattle. But the most common objects found in this tavern were wine cups. Roman taverns were established in mostly rural areas but as the economy diversified and farming became more specialized, there were a lot of people not growing their own food, so the need for a place where people could eat outside of the home arose. This is appropriate considering France is where the modern concept of a restaurant first appeared. Taverns were initially intended for travelers, but if villages or cities sprung up around the tavern, locals would adopt them as a third-place apart from home and work, where they could go to discuss politics, farming, business, and family life.
When the Roman Empire reached the British Isles, they encountered a well-established ale-making culture already in place. Brewing ale was a domestic duty and as such was done in the home primarily by women. This heavily influenced the Roman tavern system and women began to open up their own domestic dwellings as Taverns for weary travelers, especially if their husbands were deceased and they needed a way to make a living. As the Roman Empire collapsed and Roman influence retreated, these taverns evolved into Ale Houses. Ale Houses quickly became a place for community gatherings, socializing and meetings for the common folk. Some of the other taverns evolved into Inns and Hostels for travelers. Discussing the difference between Ale Houses, Taverns and Inns is much like discussing the difference between Porters and Stouts; there seems to be a lot of cross over and the difference would not become obvious until much later when you have pubs, restaurants, and hotels.

Having never been influenced by invading Romans, ancient Ireland independently developed their own tavern-like establishments. In Brehon law (the word “Brehon” refers to the laws of ancient Gaelic culture) of the sixth century, Chieftains were required to have their own “Bruigu”…or “Brewer”. These brewers not only brewed Irish Ale but also ran hostels that followed the strict laws of Gaelic hospitality. The Bruidean (Bruidean is usually translated as “hostel”) had to be open 24 hours a day, have torch bearers so that travelers would always be greeted with a warm welcome, and have food and drink at the ready.
These two tavern traditions must have impacted each other leading up to and during the Norman invasion of 1169. The Normans brought with them the Ale House tradition and their love of wine. Wine merchants called Vintners would ship the wine to Norman castles and sell the surplus at Taverns. To this day there is a Wine Tavern Street in Dublin and Vintners lend their name to Pub Trade Associations like the Vintners Federation of Ireland and the Licensed Vintners Association. The oldest pub in Dublin, The Brazen Head, dates back just after the invasion to 1198. From these early Taverns and Alehouses evolved the “Public House” in the seventeenth and eighteenth century and later commonly referred to shortened version of the name…the “Pub.”
By 1760, there were 2,300 public houses in Dublin, a city which became famous for its public houses and their colorful names. Most people during that time period were illiterate, so pubs were identified by the bright symbols on their signs that would eventually become their names. Names like The Flying Horse, The Sots Hole, Three Candlesticks and the Blue Leg. The public house was designed as a place where the common man could enjoy the local community and get a drink. The poor classes, which made up a majority of the people in Dublin, couldn’t afford the private clubs that the upper class frequented. Each pub would acquire their own regular clientele who would affectionately call the pub their “local”. Pubs would have a reputation for attracting certain groups like tradesmen, poets, politicians, businessmen and revolutionaries.

Also during this time period were two other types of drinking establishments in Ireland, the “Spirit Grocer” and the “Shebeen”. In 1791 the spirit grocer license was approved, which allowed grocers to obtain a license to sell ale and spirits for off-premises consumption. Regardless of the license, many grocers turned their stores into pubs when the authorities weren’t looking and, unlike true public houses of the time, they allowed women to drink there. Spirit Grocers were hated by publicans (a “publican” is the name of the public house’s owner and proprietor), who had a more expensive license and had to adhere to more strict regulations. A “shSebeen” was an illegal drinking house usually found in a tenement building and served ale, wine, and spirits at all hours of the night. These lower forms of drinking houses would eventually affect the evolution of the pub; in 1817 the Grocers and Publicans joined forces thinking that their combined strength would better protect their political and legal interest. This created pubs with a small grocery business selling basic commodities.

The 19th century is when pubs began to look and feel a little more like the Irish Pubs we know and love today. They became the center of the community and social life, and they hosted wakes, weddings, christenings, and holiday celebrations. Publicans were respected members of the community and barmen worked as apprentices under them with the hopes of one day owning their own pub. Barmen were required to be mediators for debates, sports and political commentators, confidants, and above all else, hospitable.

“The regulars of a particular pub usually knew each other and comfortably slipped into their roles as storyteller, comedian, listener, sage and rabble-rouser.”

This is also the century that would see the rise of the “Snug”, a small area or room separated by wooden dividers and stained glass. The snug provided extra privacy for matchmakers, the local priest, the occasional woman, and conversations of rebellion. In the later part of the century, the classic Victorian ascetic with high copper tiled ceilings, large mirrors, ornate carpets, chandeliers, and long polished bars became popular in Dublin pubs.
Between 1845 and 1855, 1.5 million Irish immigrated to the United State due to the Great Hunger, with many more to follow in the coming decades. The United States already had an established pub and tavern industry that dated back to the very beginning of the colonies when public houses doubled as meeting halls and courthouses due to the complete lack of actual government infrastructure. Eventually, the Revolutionary War would be sparked in conversations held in Boston Taverns. When Irish immigrants arrived in the United States they were often told to go straight to the local “Irish Pub”. Their fellow Irish immigrants could help them settle, find work or locate family members. The Irish pub in the United States was just as much a center of the community, and often it was a way to connect with the culture of Ireland and a lifeline back home. Irish immigrants opened pubs in Boston, Chicago, NYC…all over the United States and eventually all over the world.
Like everything in history, the evolution of the pub wasn’t always pretty. Women were not allowed in Irish pubs for a very long time with the exception of female street vendors that earned their spot at the bar. Eventually, lounges were put in the back of bars for couples and finally, women were allowed in all together. There were periods of time when pubs were known for their drunken debauchery, criminal elements, and working men spending all their wages on drink… but a great modern pub that has withstood the test of time is a distillation of all the great aspects of past pubs.

So what makes a great pub? A great pub has a “come as you are” attitude with a culture of hospitality and a dedication to quality. It should be the center of a small community and attract many local characters but be welcoming to newcomers. I don’t care if it’s a rustic country-style pub or a Victorian pub…it should be cozy and homey, designed for conversation with nooks and crannies and snugs. There should be very few TV’s (or none), and if there’s food it should be simple and well made. The staff should be attentive, knowledgeable, and entertaining, and more than anything else they absolutely must pour a perfect pint of Guinness.