If you don’t want to get tossed out of Irish pubs in Dublin (or anywhere in Ireland, really) then don’t order a Black and Tan. I wish I had read that before we went there. Brush up on your Irish pub etiquette before visiting the Emerald Isle. Unfortunately I learned this lesson, as I so often do, the hard way.
What is a Black and Tan?
In America a Black and Tan beer is a popular drink poured with equal parts dark Guinness Stout and lighter colored Bass Ale (which is an English beer . . . we’ll get to that more in a bit). Despite its heavier taste, the Guinness is actually slightly lighter in weight and, if poured carefully, will actually “float on top of the lighter-colored (but more weighty) Bass. Black and tan drinks are an eye-catching display in the glass–one that tastes pretty good, too.
Real artisans will even use a special Black and Tan spoon. You turn the spoon upside-down, which helps the Guinness pour gently over the surface of the heavier ale.
What is a Black and Tan in Ireland?
In Ireland, though, Black & Tan drinks do not exist. The term has very negative connotations. Black and tan were the colors of the uniforms worn by the British paramilitary troops that were formed around 1920 to put down the Irish after the failed Easter Uprising. Their uniforms were a hybrid of military khaki trousers with dark (often black) jackets and black socks or boots. These soldiers, known as the “Black and Tans,” had fought in the bloodiest trench battles of World War I and were not about to be put off by rebels wielding rusty hunting rifles and pitchforks.
To get a better idea of what things were like back then, watch the film The Wind that Shakes the Barley. The movie takes place when the Black and Tans were wreaking havoc on the Irish countryside. They responded to attacks from the newly formed IRA by burning houses, brutalizing the populace and engaging in all sorts of pillaging type activities. The movie features a young Cillian Murphy (most recently seen as the tough-as-nails crime boss in the Netflix series Peaky Blinders) in one of his earlier roles.
We had watched the film just before we left for Ireland. The Black and Tans are pretty much the villains of the piece. So mixing Guinness with an English ale might not be the best combination. After seeing yet another barn burning in the film I said to Larissa, in a rare moment of clarity, “maybe ordering a Black and Tan at Irish pub isn’t such a good idea,” so I forgot about it.
A lesson in Irish Pub etiquette (sort of)
But then, in a bit of good luck, (or so I thought at the time) on the flight over to Dublin I sat next to a talkative Irishman named Keith. Well, “talkative Irishman” is a bit redundant. I learned first-hand (for 7 hours—on an overnight flight) about the legendary Irish gift for gab. Keith has what many would consider to be a dream job. He works for Guinness and is a quality assurance inspector. This means he travels around America inspecting pubs to make sure that Guinness is being poured properly. Yes folks, you can get paid to drink beer.
I figured that someone who works for such a historic brewery in Ireland could shed some light for me on the whole “Black and Tan” thing. Keith assured me that it was okay to order the drink at an Irish pub in Ireland. He said that it referred more to a time period of Irish history and not the actual soldiers. I was a little skeptical but I was getting the info pretty close to the source, wasn’t I? (Spoiler alert: We should have done this VIP Guinness tour of the famous Guinness Storehouse first .)
A Black and Tan in the countryside? Maybe not.
So a few days later, after renting a car and brushing up on driving on the left, we found ourselves in a remote town on the Irish west coast. As we walked the streets we even heard locals speaking Gaelic. (Which they call speaking Irish but that’s another story.) I had worked up a bit of a thirst searching for rainbows, leprechauns and all things Irish, which is how we found ourselves in a a pub filled with afternoon revelers watching an intense game of pool. With Keith’s words in my ears I confidently strode up to the bar and ordered a Black & Tan.
The pub got deathly still. All heads turned to look at this interloper. The jukebox went mute and even the billiards balls stopped in mid-carom. The bartender gave me what my Uncle Charlie would call the hairy eyeball. “You want what?” he asked.
I stammered out another request for a Black & Tan. At this point, Larissa decided to abandon nearly 25 years of marital togetherness and started edging away from me. I heard a few murmurs in Gaelic, which made me wish my parents hadn’t burdened me with such an English sounding last name. I wanted to shout “I’m 1/8 Irish!”, but fractions were never my strong suit.
Oh Bono, where art thou?
Like a slick politician on election eve I even tried pandering. “I really like U2,” I blurted out. This didn’t help. One of the pool players, who was wielding an inordinately large cue stick, came right back with “Bono should go save Africa already and leave us the feck alone.” “Wow! Tough crowd,” I thought. They don’t even kneel at the altar of St. Bono.
I realized then that the advice Keith had given me on the flight over was woefully wrong. Yep, that same guy who worked for Guinness! (Come to think of it, his directions sucked too.) Ordering a Black & Tan at an Irish pub in Ireland is like walking into a bar in Warsaw and ordering an “SS Storm Trooper.” NOT a good idea. Suitably chastened I slunk towards the beckoning door, where my loving and supportive wife was already waiting outside, well away from the fracas.
I take some (small) solace in the fact that I’m not the only American to make this gaffe. In 2006 Ben & Jerry’s (yep, the ice cream guys) had to pull a new Black and Tan ice cream off the market in the US after an outcry from folks in Ireland. And the product wasn’t even being sold in the Emerald Isle–that’s some far-reaching bad feelings for the term Black and Tan!
What SHOULD you order in an Irish pub in Ireland?
Okay, we now know the term “Black and Tan” is taboo. But what DO you order? Opinions vary here. As a result, there’s no clear answer. Some people suggest using the term “half and half,” which will be half Guinness and half a lighter Irish lager, such as Harp (remember, we’re not using English ales now!) One bartender we spoke to said that a “half and half” to him means 100% Guinness, with half of it chilled and the remainder poured at sightly below room temperature (more to the Irish palate). Hmm. You could also hedge your bets and order a “Guinness and Harp.” Either tastes great, and you can enjoy them without risk of your face getting rearranged.
But me? I’m staying away from the fancy stuff and just ordering straight Guinness from now on.
Bonus Irish Pub tip
I do give myself credit for having the good sense not to get an “Irish Car Bomb.” This is a concoction made up of Baileys, Kahlua (optional) and Jameson Irish Whisky. We saw someone order it at an Irish pub in Dublin. The bartender stopped in his tracks and told the offender he was lucky that he had asked for it in Dublin and not in one of the more contentious sections of Ireland. Needless to say, that drink order was refused. (So don’t be cute–don’t order one of those either.)
Don’t make our mistake . . . take a Pub Crawl tour and learn to do things the right way!
Or, to really understand Guinness, sign up for the VIP Guinness Tour at the Guinness Storehouse!
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