Cleveland Irish: Why Cows? Because Ice Cream Doesn’t Have Bones

Cleveland Irish: Why Cows?
by Francis McGarry

“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”  Zora Neale Hurston was an author, anthropologist and ethnographer who studied at Columbia University with Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead.  That means something if you are familiar with American anthropology. 

She was the only African-American woman at Columbia in 1925, which means even more.  I read her plaque as I waited for my son to check into his dorm.  It was a quick read before I walked over to The Dead Poet for a pint. 

My anthropological recall, catalyticized by Hurston’s plaque, returned to Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture.  She believed strongly that each aspect of culture (beliefs, practices, values) should be understood in relation to that culture and not juxtaposed with the values, beliefs and practices of another culture.  That is when two worlds intersected. 

I had passed a handful of bars without a Tricolour or a Guinness sign to get to The Dead Poet.  So why Guinness, or more so Irish stout in general, that is so Irish?  I know the history of Guinness well enough, but not why Irish stout. 

So, when I got back to Cleveland, I went to my go-to for advice and counsel, Bill Homan;  Mickey McNally was busy.  Bill shared what his father told him: “Why cows?  Because ice cream doesn’t have bones.”  Take that Ruth Benedict.

Evidence of Beer
It was time for research, with the assistance of Michael Byrne.  The Epic of Gilgamesh, written over 4,000 years ago, is the first written evidence of beer.  Enkidu, who is depicted as a wild warrior figure, drank seven pitchers of beer and ate until he was full.  He sang out with joy, although there is no mention of a kazoo.

If the pen is mightier than the sword, then beer was more important, or at least predates, the pen.  9,000 years before mention in Gilgamesh, the Natufian people were producing beer in Levant, present day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel and Turkey.  They were hunter gathers who produced the oldest known piece of art depicting love-making. 

Huanghe civilization along the Yellow River in China has pottery remains that date to 8,000 years ago.  Archeological analysis denotes similar sized housing structures and minimal variance in burial offerings, indication of a society that was egalitarian.  They did have a large “public” house, not used for housing, but apparently to host large gatherings.  Floor excavation shows an inordinate amount of liquor. 

The Huanghe developed brewing methods that increased the alcohol level of their beer. They allowed aspergillus to function as a starch, fermenting microbe, and then added yeast.  Yeast is perhaps the earliest domesticated substance by humans.  

St. Patrick’s Brewer
Irish beer dates to over 5,000 years ago, to the beginning of Irish agriculture itself.  The fertile soil, rain, and cool climate made barley (eórna) production suitable.  Cultivation of corn, wheat, rye and oats all predate the potato in Ireland.  Ale does as well, with brewing occurring in the Bronze and early Iron Ages.  The priest Mescan was St. Patrick’s brewer. 

Irish monasteries and Irish monks specialized in the production of ale.  Smithwick brewery in Kilkenny has an abbey on its land.  Hops were not utilized in Ireland until the 13th century.  Beer was brewed using herbs, like gentian.  Regardless of herb, history tell us Irish beer had a red tint.  The monks were allowed to consume their red ale during Lenten fasting. 

The hop revolution began in Germany in the 13th century and expanded in all directions.  Hops allowed beer to remain quaffable for a good three months.  In Ireland, that manifested as beer storage for the winter.  That assisted the agrarian Irish in multiple ways.

By the 17th Century, Irish beer was small batched in local breweries by women, called “alewives.” Ale was consumed in alehouses, which were more so rooms in a private dwelling.  Then, in 1756, Arthur Guinness opened a small brewery. His father had manufactured ale for priests.  It was three years later that he opened St. James’s Gate. 

Guinness was not the only brewery to open during this period.  Beamish opened in 1792; Murphy’s in 1856.  Guinness was the largest and it moved to “stouts” production around 1800.  The first Irish stouts were more similar to a porter, but then they got their Irish up. 

In1817, Daniel Wheeler invented a roaster that could produce very dark roasts. That invention coincided with Irish brewers using unmalted barley in order to avoid English taxation.  At the time, the ingredients were taxed and not the beer.  Irish stout was born. 

It was not done evolving.  In 1800, Irish stout was characterized as a strong, acidic, vat-aged brown beer made with smoky malt. Throughout the 19th century, it became darker, more bitter, vat-aged beer and achieved additional character through the use of roasted barley.

The 1880 Free-Mash Tun Act, or Inland Revenue Act, replaced the malt tax with a tax on beer and increased licensing requirements and governmental oversight.  That essentially ended the local cottage brewery.  It also allowed brewers to choose their ingredients. 

The commercialization and large brewery structure not only eliminated the “alewives,” but it also led to the exportation of Irish stout. Then Michael Ash at Guinness introduced nitrogen to the Irish stout.  That was the final step in the evolution of Irish stout.  It is now a session stout, not vat-aged, with lower alcohol, darkened entirely by roast barley, and served on nitrogen.  It also travels better.

That was discussed with Jimmy and Brigid at the Sash Party a few years back.  Despite the old bottles on 117th and Lorain, the first mention of Guinness or any Irish stout in Cleveland written history is in 1893.  John R. Collins immigrated to Cleveland in 1880 and owned a pub at 114 South Woodland, which opened in 1888.  He was a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. 

I left The Dead Poet and had dinner with my son.  At the hotel room, I did what my Ma has always done.  You put the ice in the bathroom sink in the hotel room with your beer.  That has not changed, even with most hotel rooms now having fridges. 

I never knew there was another way until Fitz left his house with just a rolling cooler for a multi-day trip.  Helen soon discovered his clothes neatly arranged inside the cooler.  “Ya see, sport, I get to the hotel and put the clothes in the dresser.”  No offense to Gilgamesh, that is my favorite beer story. Some years do have answers.

*Francis McGarry holds undergraduate degrees from Indiana University in Anthropology, Education and History and a Masters in Social Science from the University of Chicago.  He is an assistant principal and history teacher.  Francis is a past president of the Irish American Club East Side.  He is the founder and past president of the Bluestone Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.  

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