With its new brewery in Baltimore, Guinness sets sights on bold innovation
My boss walks over with the assignment.
“You want to take a private tour of the new Guinness brewery in Baltimore?”
It’s like someone just asked Charlie if he wants a golden ticket to see Willy Wonka.
Do I want to take a tour of the Guinness brewery?
I’m a Guinness fan. Over the past 10 years, I’ve downed a healthy number of Guinness pints—maybe more than any other beer in the world. It’s not uncommon for me to walk into a regular hangout and have the bartender point and ask: “Guinness?”
So I ponder how I could possibly write an impartial story on Guinness. How could I go on the tour without bringing along a journalistically unsound bias?
It would be impossible. Unthinkable. Sensational.
Do I want to take a tour?
The Journey To Stout And Beyond
Friday arrives. Late-afternoon and I’m driving southbound, my mood easing despite the mounting traffic. Sun shining, tunes playing. I’m brewery bound.
Just 10 miles from downtown Baltimore, Guinness Open Gate Brewery opened last summer, touting itself as the first Guinness brewery in the U.S. since 1954. It’s one of 46 Guinness breweries in the world.
“We’re combining over 260 years of Irish brewing experience with American beer creativity,” the Open Gate website states. “Our site features an experimental brewery, taproom, restaurant, brand store, food truck and beer garden…”
The facility is impressive, with multiple massive buildings on the campus. I pull into the parking lot, walk in to the check-in table, then head to the tasting room, where rush hour is giving way to happy hour.
Slightly early for my tour, I saddle up bar-side and soon take my first sip of a fresh pour of Guinness stout. It’s wonderfully refreshing.
The tasting room is centered largely around a rectangle-shaped bar that spans the length of the room. All 40 seats are filled. On the other side from me are 30 or so tables, all filled.
And the place is alive. Everyone is smiling—customers and servers of all ages, all ethnicities, all backgrounds. People are actually enjoying each other’s company, and nary a phone in sight. A bar-back literally whistles while he works, as bartenders make the rounds, serving full pints along with witty banter. One halfway expects to see a modern-day Norman Rockwell painting the scene from a nearby table. It’s a perfect moment in time.
Ah, but too perfect?
Looking around the room once more, I suddenly feel a tingle up my spine.
Did I just join a cult or is this the happiest happy hour ever?
My tour guide walks up to the bar and introduces himself as Ryan Wagner. Through his dense black beard flashes another friendly smile—of course.
Turns out Wagner is not your run-of-the-mill tour guide. In the U.S., the enthusiastic, 30-something Baltimore native is one of only nine Guinness Ambassadors. It’s a fun and prestigious-sounding title, but vague—unless it involves tapping the inaugural keg at UN conferences.
“My job, in a nutshell, is to bring the brand to life wherever I go,” Wagner says. “No matter who interacts with our beer, no matter what that interaction looks like—if you’re selling it, if you’re displaying it, if you’re drinking it, if you’re pouring it—whatever it is, I make sure you’re doing it the right way and the way that brewers intended.”
Sounds more serious than I expected. After another sip of my beer, I ask him if everyone who works here is always so cheery.
“Just like any hospitality-focused business, there are challenges here for our staff,” Wagner says. “But I think the one thing that sets them apart is that every day we ask them to bring themselves. We’re not going to give them cookie-cutter training.”
He looks across the bar and waves his hand as if casting a spell.
“No two conversations being had between our bartenders and our customers right now are going to be the same,” he says. “And I think that’s incredibly important because if you go into any taproom or any brewery in the United States, you’re not going to get that cookie cutter experience, either.”
“Everybody’s got their own story to tell. Everybody’s got their own beer to sell. Everybody’s got those things that engage the customers that they need to know by heart and say without even thinking about it. And if we were to put that on a sheet and say [to our employees], ‘Here are the 10 things we need you to know,’ it would be over-rehearsed and inauthentic.”
I look around the room again. The happiness here definitely seems authentic.
But then I commit a faux pas.
As I finish the pint of stout, I ask if they brew it on the premises. They don’t. Up to 18 of the 20 taps at the bar are available for beers brewed in this building; two are reserved for the famed stout, brewed at the original Guinness brewery, St. James’s Gate in Dublin, Ireland.
“So this taproom is the first to get the Guinness off the boat then?” I ask.
I sense a tense note in Wagner’s polite delivery.
“Yes, we’re the first to get the Guinness Draught off the boat, but every beer on tap here is a Guinness, not just the Draught,” he clarifies. “Open Gate is a Guinness brewery, and we make a variety of beers—all Guinness beer.”
And with that misconception on my part about a brewery I claim to revere, we essentially start the private tour.
A Focus On Innovation
In my defense, my mistake is not uncommon. The success of Guinness Draught Stout, in many instances, has been a double-edged sword.
“Especially in this country, there is a very fond but also very myopic view on what Guinness is: It’s a brewery based in Dublin, Ireland, that [brews] a single beer, a nitrogenated, black pint of stout,” Wagner says. “So we try to get them to open up to the fact that, no, it can be citrus IPA, it can be a coconut porter, it can be a barrel-aged strong ale.”
That might be easier said than done. Thus far, efforts to introduce new Guinness beer products in the U.S. have faced challenges.
“Guinness Blonde American Lager was not reaching the audience in a way that we intended,” Wagner says of a beer that was introduced in 2014. “One of the things it was lacking was authenticity. So our job here and our brewing team’s primary goal when we set up brewery operations was to take Guinness Blonde American Lager and give it that authenticity—give it a home.”
As we walk downstairs, we find the heart of that home: Open Gate’s experimental brewery, which is situated directly below the taproom, the same place I just finished my stout while sticking my foot in my mouth.
This brewery essentially feeds the taproom with small-batch beers and one-offs. Before us, the 10-hectoliter brewing system’s tanks, pipes, and gauges glisten as if they had been polished just minutes earlier. The place is immaculate. It’s hard to imagine anyone ever having a sip of beer in this room, let alone brewing thousands of barrels of it.
Wagner explains that the innovation that goes on in this room daily started with Open Gate’s team of brewers achieving that first task: the reinvention the Guinness Blonde American Lager. The resulting product, Guinness Blonde Ale, is now brewed exclusively in the larger, 100-hectoliter brewhouse next door, then distributed throughout the country.
All of this is a bet that Guinness is making on America. Again. The first time Guinness brewed in the U.S. was from 1949 to 1954 in Long Island City, N.Y., a five-year experiment that didn’t pan out.
“The difference is that in the early 1950s there were about 30 breweries in the United States total,” Wagner says. “These days there are more than 8,000. So it’s a much different atmosphere and it’s a much different market.”
In fact, believe it or not, Guinness’ Long Island City facility closed five years before the brewery giant developed its most popular beer. That’s right: the 260-year-old-brewery didn’t start brewing Guinness Draught until 1959. That was 61 years ago.
From that broad perspective, it’s easier to understand why Guinness is not content to rest on its laurels. The focus on innovation is underscored by the brewery’s name, Open Gate, identical to its sister brewery in Dublin, the experimental division at St. James’s Gate.
“We’re all about creating that new, interesting story from Guinness, which is something that they [also] do in Dublin, obviously, at the Open Gate Brewery,” Wagner says. “All of the breweries in Guinness’ world look for ways to create and innovate. But the level in which you have to do it, you don’t see that anywhere else in the world except for here in the United States.
“We get to come in and take advantage of what the American craft beer industry has built, which is a focus on innovation and creativity along with a consumer base that is so educated when it comes to beer. It’s not about turning to the beer they know—the beer that they’ve had a million times—it’s about turning to what’s next, what’s new: ‘How are you going to make me reengage with your brand?’”
The Most Magical Place On Earth
As we talk more, it becomes clear that Wagner speaks about deep, thoughtful aspects of the business in exact and often eloquent terms. This must be what it takes to be a Guinness Ambassador. Maybe. But in Wagner’s case, it’s more than that.
If Wagner has a gift for gab, it might be because he studied Musical Theater at Frostburg State University, just 150 miles west of Baltimore. Or the fact that after he graduated in 2007, he went on to perform on Broadway and in touring productions around the country for several years. Or that since 2012, he’s also been the public address announcer for the Orioles at Camden Yards.
So the guy can speak confidently. But he also speaks with passion. He credits that fact and his current job to a trip to Ireland that he took with his wife, years before he ever thought to work for Guinness.
“We flew into Dublin, and as part of our insane 16-hour tour of that city, one of the things I’d been adamant about was going to Guinness,” Wagner says. “That’s what you do: You got to go to St. James’s Gate and see the brewery… It’s the most magical place on Earth. It’s the single best tour I’ve ever done in my life.”
The world “magical” swirls through my head as we take the tour. I think about all the happy people gathering upstairs around the bar. All the high spirits. I ask Wagner about it: Is that also part of the magic?
“What I love about Guinness is that the brewery has existed as long as it has because it builds bonds between people,” he answers. “That’s what it does—no matter where you are in the world, no matter what it is that you are doing.”
“That pint of Guinness Draught stout, for instance—we hear a story almost every day: ‘This is the beer that my dad and I shared on my wedding day’ or ‘This is the beer that I toast my grandfather with on the anniversary of his passing.’”
“There are familial and meaningful, impactful memories and stories that people have regarding our beer. It’s not just, ‘Oh, I really like the way your beer tastes,’ it’s ‘I really like the way your beer makes me feel’ or ‘I really like the way your beer can transport me back to another part of my life.’ Everybody’s got a Guinness story.”
The next chapter in the Guinness story, in America at least, is Open Gate. From what I saw on the first Friday of 2020, there is evidence that the place is attracting an appreciative audience.
But what Open Gate is striving to do is no easy feat: Continue the Guinness tradition with a specific beer that unites generations of fans in an often emotional context—all while introducing new products and unknown flavors at a level of success that they’ve never quite achieved before in America.
To use Wagner’s word, they may need some of that magic to make it happen. For what it’s worth, I’m rooting for them. I think they can do it.
They have time—260 years of it—on their side.