It doesn’t matter if you’re a craft beer aficionado or a lover of macrobrews. When most beer drinkers think of Guinness, they think of the company that makes, well, Guinness. Affectionately known as “the black stuff” Guinness dry Irish stout is one of those beers that’s recognized around the world, from Ireland to Africa to the United States. A pint of Guinness Draught is as renowned for its appearance—the thick head, the dark color, the bubbles that cascade to the top after it’s poured—as it is for its smooth and creamy taste.
But despite what many people think, Guinness is a brewery, and not just one beer. When Arthur Guinness started operations in Dublin in 1759 (he signed a 9,000-year lease on the St. James Gate property where the company is still headquartered, although it has expanded considerably since then), the first beer he made was an ale. From there, he moved on to a porter, so named because it was favored by porters transporting cargo in London, which eventually morphed into the stout that is so beloved today.
So in some ways, Guinness’s Open Gate Brewery that recently opened to the public in Dublin is continuing a tradition of beer experimentation and innovation that has been going on for centuries. The Open Gate Brewery is where the Guinness Nitro IPA, which recently launched in the U.S., was born. It’s also the place where the widget that sits inside cans of Guinness cans allowing for a draft-like drinking experience was created. A sign outside the facility states, “Anything we can dream up, we get to brew up.” It’s a bold declaration from a brewery as massive as Guinness. And it’s easy to look at the company as hopping on the craft beer bandwagon. But keep in mind that Guinness opened its first research lab in 1901. Also, if the beer tastes good, who really gives a shit?
To find out more about the new Open Gate Brewery and sample the beers, I headed to Ireland. (It’s a tough job but somebody has to do it.) I sat down with Guinness brewer Feodora Heavey to taste some of the new beers such as the OGB Milk Stout and Imperial Dunkel Weisse, which are only available at the facility, and find out what’s driving Guinness’s push to make more than just Guinness.
How are you guys using this facility?
I am a brewer, but I primarily work on innovation. I take things from a concept to a commercial reality. If you’re concepting something you need to try it at a small scale and that’s what we do here in the experimental brewery. This particular one has been on the site since the 1960s and we’ve had experimental breweries for over 100 years. We have two plants here, a one hectoliter and a 10 hectoliter plant. All our ideation happens on that one hectoliter plant. We may have an idea of what we want to create from a flavor perspective, but can we actually make that using traditional brewing raw materials? When we feel that we’ve landed on something, we decide where we think this will go. Each market is different and has different tastes. Then we figure out how do we scale up. At Brewhouse 4 [one of Guinness’s primary brewhouses] each brew size can be anywhere from 550 hecs to 1000 hectoliters, so we have to take [a beer] from a 10 hec all the way up to a 1,000 hec.
You mentioned this facility has been around since the 1960s. What was going on then leading up to today?
In the interim we have had launches, like Guinness Black Lager. We’ve also had a lot of launches in Africa. We have breweries across West and East Africa and they brew what’s called Foreign Extra Stout. It’s 7.5% alcohol, carbonated, and has a much different profile, with toffee and caramel. Probably the best known piece of technology is the widget, that makes you have a draft experience at home in a can, was born here. This isn’t just a home of beer innovation. It’’s a hub of scientific exploration. How can we make ourselves the best brewers in the world? This is where you try all these things.
What are some of the craziest things you have brewed in here?
We usually stretch the boundaries of the concept. The 1759 was a champagne-style bottle of imperial ale that launched in the U.S. last year. My colleague worked on that and he used a malt that is very distinct to the distilling industry. It has a peaty, earthy feel. He maximized that for a very earthy taste. Then you find somewhere in the middle that still gets that distinct peat taste but it’s not overpowering. It’s never totally crazy because we’re all pretty in tune with what the raw materials will deliver. But this Open Gate Brewery is a bit of a toy where we’re going to produce two or three new liquids a month. We may look to old recipes. We’ll make our own new recipes. We’ll look around the world and see what different brewers and countries have and we’ll do our interpretation of that.
What does it take for a beer to make it out of here and actually get on shelves and taps?
Making sure that we have a customer. If we feel like we have a customer for something, whether it’s a one-off brew or a mainstream play that we’ll brew forevermore, we’ll make it happen. We are open to anything.
You have a background in chemistry. How does that impact your brewing?
I suppose I have a very molecular level approach to beer. Sometimes I have to park that and let the creative stuff flow. I really do believe that brewing is a science and an art. It is complex. People do PhDs on brewing.
The craft beer community can be snobby. How are people receiving the new initiative?
We had about 30 craft brewers from around Ireland in and I think they were really impressed. They were excited to my face [laughs]. They’re very interested in our quality and what we have. Those guys don’t have it. It’s good sharing knowledge about how you can be consistent in your quality without having to have huge investment in an analytical lab or a microbiological lab.
Craft beer has become so regional, with specific states in the U.S. favoring certain styles. How do you cater to that when you have customers around the world?
The first beer left Ireland for the export market around 1801, so we’ve always been an international company, in a way. Arthur Guinness and his sons wanted to serve the world and understand what the world wanted. Funnily enough, they all wanted stout. Now the world is changing and we’re changing with it and offering people a variety of Guinness.