"But...how? I mean...how?"
That was the most common response I had when I told people that I'd never before drank a pint of Guinness.
An Irish man who'd never properly tasted "the black stuff": What kind of piss-poor cultural stereotype was I?
How is it possible that, in 17 years of drinking, I’d never managed to finish a pint of what the late Rev. Ian Paisley once slammed/praised as “the Devil’s buttermilk”?
The quick answer: I never put the work in to "acquire" the taste for stout. When I first started experimenting with alcohol, I drank Bulmers cider, before – classy guy that I am – graduating to alcopops (ah, Woody's), then beer, and now spirits.
So last week, aged 33, and little bit more worldly, I decided the time had come for me to get the fuck over it and drink a goddamn pint of Guinness.
After consulting some of my stout-loving friends, I settled on The Toucan in Soho Square, London, as the spot for me to lose my Guinness virginity.
Several trusted sources deemed this pub the purveyor of "the best pint of Guinness in London". Plus I'd heard that it was a favourite haunt of Richard Harris and Peter O'Toole. If it was good enough for those blokes, it'd be good enough for me.
I should clarify that I had, of course, tasted Guinness before. I'd taken sips from others' pints, but I didn't like it. Maybe my young palate just didn't or couldn't appreciate it? (At that point I'd also never once tasted pasta, pizza, or beer – I was clearly an unadventurous teenager).
The closest I ever came to consuming a full Guinness drink was when I was offered a warm can of the stuff at a party.
Man, was it rank. That can was sour, gassy, and watery, with a terrible aftertaste. I was already on the fence before that experience; post-can, I was firmly set against Guinness.
Like a child with certain vegetables, I became convinced that I just didn't like it, even though I'd never really tried it, or at the very least, tried it when done well.
There was a lot of pressure on The Toucan to deliver.
Reassuringly, the basement bar of the pub is like a mini-Guinness museum, decorated in paraphernalia, with bar stools shaped like actual pints.
I got chatting to the barmaid, Carol, and she promised to ease me in gently to this whole Guinness malarkey.
She pulled the pint to halfway, and then set it aside to let it "settle" before continuing. During that interval, Carol warned me that while she's proud of the pints they offer in this pub, the experience could be very different if you get a bad pint in another establishment.
Carol explained that the key to a good pint of Guinness is in the pipes: Short lines from the barrel are best, and they must be kept clean. The longer the line, the worse the pint.
"You also need patience," she added. A few minutes later she was ready to finish pulling the pint. "The head should stay around the head of the glass," she said, offering up what looked to my rookie eyes as a pretty perfect pint.
The moment of truth had arrived. I’d been advised to take a proper gulp, not a sip, so I did.
I braced myself, as I was expecting it to be bitter. I had firmly planted myself on my pint-shaped stool, ready to turn and spit it out or vomit if needs be.
There was no need.
Christ, it was delicious.
It wasn't bitter. It was smooth, creamy, with a lovely charcoal-y aftertaste. It was a revelation.
It was also disturbingly easy to drink. Like most first-time experiences, it was over in a matter of minutes. Four to five gulps, and I was done.
I ordered a second pint, just to make sure it wasn’t a fluke.
This time I ordered a Guinness cocktail to test my tolerance of the taste of stout. I ordered a "Velvet Pussy" – a pint with a shot of port in it (and with a cute shamrock drawn on the top).
It was…fine. Suddenly an expert on all things Guinness after my whole one pint, I proclaimed to Carol that the port had watered down the taste of the Guinness too much. She was too much of a pro to roll her eyes at me.
Look, I'm fully aware that Guinness, and alcohol in general, is probably too intertwined with Ireland's identity than many people are comfortable with any more.
And in absolutely no way is it a prerequisite to like Guinness – the drink or the brand – in order to be authentically Irish.
Finally getting round to drinking Guinness didn't make me feel more Irish, nor should it, but, y'know what, I did enjoy it.
So I'll be having another pint today for St Patrick's Day, and I'll be sure to express my opinion on its quality to anyone who will listen.
I'm an expert now, after all.