Brussels Irish // Drinking my first ever Guinness, in African Brussels

Brussels Irish // Drinking my first ever Guinness, in African Brussels

Brussels Irish is a short, more personal series of reflections and profiles about being an Irish man drinking beer in Brussels. This is the first article.

In a corner of the Brussels pentagon, where the Quai de Commerce, Square Saintclette and the Boulevard d’Anvers meet in a jumble of tram cables and traffic jams, is a little of Central African neighbourhood. I pass it most days on the way to or from the crèche of my youngest daughter. It is an unloved part of town, save for sex workers and an art deco hotel-café of ill repute.

Black bottles, yellow labels

It’s less a neighbourhood than a string of convenience shops reeking of fermented meat and fish, strung out amongst steak restaurants and derelict apartment buildings. Shops with windows full of yellow-black plantains and knobbly root vegetables and hair extensions. And fridges stacked with Guinness Special Export and Foreign Extra Stout. Black bottles with their yellow labels sit alongside exotic (to me) malt beverages, among outsized sacks of rice and bronze vats of cooking oil. I’m used to seeing the Guinness logo; it follows Irish people incessantly around the world. Still, these bottles here, in this context strikes me as a curiosity. My name is Eoghan, I come from Ireland, and I have never drunk “a pint of plain”.

When things go wrong and will not come right,
Though you do the best you can,
When life looks black as the hour of night -
A pint of plain is your only man.
— Flann O'Brien

It just never really interested me. Before I moved to Belgium I was only dimly aware of versions of Guinness beyond the familiar draught. And here are two, and bottled at that. Foreign Extra Stout, brewed for the colonies and wildly popular post-colonial Africa; and Special Export, brewed on request of the British importer of Guinness to Belgium, because the standard stout was just not robust enough for Belgian palates. Growing up, I just never really got Guinness, in the same way I never really got (and still don’t) the appeal of The Late Late Show. Blame my upbringing.

Graham Norton over Gay Byrne and Guinness

Growing up in an atypical Irish family in the 1990s, I chafed against the established totems of Irish identity. This is partly down to my innate contrarianism, and a heady dose of the cultural cringe of the self-styled metropolitan. For us, brought up as atheists by parents who divorced as soon as it was legal, it was field hockey instead of GAA. Protestant school, and no communion. Graham Norton over Gay Byrne. I had, and still have, no affinity for the church, the GAA, or the Irish language. Guinness was a natural victim of this oppositional attitude. No paddywhackery for me, please.

It didn’t help that I grew up in Cork – Beamish and Murphy’s country – and only took to drinking beer in my early 20s, meaning none of my early, visceral memories of drinking and getting drunk feature Guinness.

I will caveat all this by admitting that Guinness has passed my lips once, an illicit sup taken on a beachside terrace at a county Waterford seaside town when I was seventeen. It remained just a sup. And it put me off dark, roasty beers for a long time. What all this is trying to say is that, for me, Guinness comes freighted with the weight of psychological baggage.

It’s just a beer

But then, looking at the shelves of these extra and special stouts, unmoored from an Irishness I’ve always rejected – or which has rejected me – I thought: time to get over myself and my hang-ups and give it a go. In the spirit of my Irish-Belgian reality, I plump for a bottle of Special Export. How does it measure up to my expectations? Well, how could it ever, really? It’s just a beer, after all. It also confirms some of the initial impressions of seventeen-year-old-me. Just too much roasted flavour, too much coffee, and the higher alcohol content (8% compared to the standard 4.2) amplifies everything, to its detriment.

A reckoning waits

This isn’t really Guinness though, or at least the Guinness I have avoided for as long as I’ve drunk beer. As luck would have it, I am in Dublin this St. Patrick’s Day, for the first time in almost two decades. Time to settle down in a quiet snug with a proper pint of draught Guinness. Maybe I will finish this one. My reckoning with Guinness approaches.