The Open Gate Brewery & Barrel House, set to produce arguably the most innovative Guinness in the world, opens today. On Fridays they'll be open 3-8 PM, Saturdays from 11 AM to 8 PM, and Sundays from 11 AM to 5 PM.
The beer list as of Wednesday featured seven Guinness beers comprised of one bottle and six drafts. On draft is Guinness Draught and the classic dark beer, Foreign Extra Stout, which has pleased beer nerds for centuries. Rounding out the "Imported from Dublin" list was Guinness 200th Anniversary Export Stout. This was a standout. The historical aspect is very appealing to American drinkers as it marks the 200th Anniversary of the first written record of Guinness beer imported into America (headed to John Heavy of South Carolina, on October 16, 1817).
Of interest to those who frequent Union, RAR, Burley Oak, Manor Hill, Hysteria, and the makers of cloudy/hazy/unfiltered IPA, the pale beers at Guinness are not to be missed. There is Guinness Golden Series #1, which tasted heavily of Mosaic, Amarillo, and El Dorado additions. The fermentation temperature was ramped up, and there is certainly the presence of esters not found in other beers on draft. Guinness Golden Series #2 was the standout for me, though others covering the beer beat commented the IPA was the best of the three pale ales. The IPA was the haziest of the three pale ales hopped with Centennial, Simcoe, Mosaic, and El Dorado. In short, Guinness is now making juice thanks to the deft brewing skills of Peter Wiens and Hollie Stephenson (formerly of Highland Brewing Company, Stone Brewing Company, and Adams Morgan's own The Black Squirrel). With these talented veterans of the brewing industry, it's hard to imagine the experimental brewing in better hands. Look for a dark Belgian ale fermented with whiskey yeast coming online soon.
When asked, Wiens said he was interested in using local ingredients such as Maryland rye. He and Stephenson have the freedom to source ingredients as they see fit to produce experimental beers on their two-barrel, two-vessel system. With five four-barrel fermenters and one two-barrel currently occupying their small cellar, the brewers hope to have their 10-barrel system online by April.
Greg Parnas also attended and adds:
Guinness still makes an excellent stout. I haven't drank a ton of it the past few years, but I'm so glad I had the opportunity to try a few different variants. The 200 Year Anniversary Export Stout was especially interesting, and I noticed a slightly acidic character to it on the back end which presented a nice contrast to the malt character. The other offerings I tried, Guinness Draught, Foreign Export Stout, the #1 Blond Ale, were also quite enjoyable.
Beer aside, though, it seems that Diageo (the parent company that owns Guinness) has made the decision to launch the "grand opening" of their Guinness taproom a bit prematurely. Currently, there are only two brewers on staff at the Halethorpe facility, and they only have use of a single 2 BBL system. Neither the 10 BBL or 100 hectoliter brew house are close to being completed. No significant amount of beer is being made yet in Maryland, and won't be for some time. Beyond that, the taproom is currently being staffed by contractors from the concessions operator at Orioles Stadium [Ed. Note: Aramark]. Diageo has not yet hired on a full-time taproom staff to serve and educate the fans of Guinness beer. Given these facts, the question remains of why did Diageo decide to open now? The Guinness facility, at this time, feels like a bit of a Potemkin Village. My take is that Diageo had to put forth a big effort this past legislative session in Maryland to bring about changes in the State's beer laws that would allow Diageo's business model for Guinness to work. That effort morphed into the contentious fight between Maryland craft brewers on one side and retailers/wholesalers on the other, which DC Beer covered this past Spring. It seems that the purpose of this premature Grand Opening was to demonstrate progress to Maryland state and local politicians, before the start of the 2018 legislative session in January.
We peppered Guinness with inquiries, asked difficult historical questions, and will be interviewing their brewers in the coming weeks, so keep your eye posted on this space.
***UPDATE***: We reached out to Guinness to follow up on some questions we had. Below, some Q&A with Andrew Beebe, Head of Open Gate Brewery & Barrel House.
DCBeer: Previously, for several decades, Diageo has been using their Halethorpe facility for liquor production, whether it was distilling, or later on blending and aging products. Why the shift to begin production of Guinness brand beer? Also, since there was mention of a barrel room, will Diageo now start producing Guinness beer that has been aged in barrels from their liquor production?
The decision to open a brewery has been in planning for a while – it was a question of location. The fantastic facility at Relay makes sense for several reasons:
- It’s owned by Diageo and only partially used at the moment, with plenty of space and capacity to expand over time
- It has a tradition as a cherished local drinks production facility, and as owners, we want to see that continue
- It’s brownfield, and not any brownfield: previously used for drinks production brownfield. That means it’s:
- Environmentally friendly
- Economic to get back up and running as a beer production facility
- A lot of the required infrastructure is already in place
- We love the vibe, fraternal spirit and general coolness of the Baltimore and Maryland beer scene
- We also just love Baltimore – trust us, Guinness and Maryland Blue Crab is a killer food and beer pairing
- We’re within 100 miles of a lot of current and potential Guinness drinkers
- The site has great transport links and is very close to both Baltimore and DC
So, quite a lot of reasons.
We love the idea of Guinness and barrel-aging, which is actually part of the heritage of Guinness (which was wood-aged at scale until the 1980s), the Relay facility, and Diageo as a leading spirits producer. What direction that will take, time will tell. We have ideas, but not ones we’re ready to talk about just yet.
The taproom is currently being staffed (to my understanding) by a separate concessions contractor, instead of Diageo personnel. Why was that decision made? Will Diageo be hiring on their own personnel to manage the taproom space going forward, and if so, at what point?
Our partners at Aramark are running the hospitality side of the site. This was a long-considered decision, and it makes sense on several levels. First, we would be starting from scratch at building the systems and human infrastructure to run a fantastic bar and restaurant operation, and we want it to be world-class. That’s a lot of learning, and a lot of energy put into something that’s not brewing beer. We spoke to lots of industry friends who run great restaurants at their breweries, and ‘find people who really know what they’re doing’ was consistent advice.
Second, Aramark is a longstanding partner of ours, running the hospitality at The Guinness Storehouse in Dublin. They get our business, our brand, and are consistently great at what they do. The Storehouse was voted the #1 tourist attraction in Europe, and Aramark’s played a big part.
But third, we want to stress that it will be one team onsite. Whether someone works for Diageo or Aramark, they’ll all be working on behalf of Guinness and working side-by-side from day one with the same goals in mind. The culture will be one of everyone doing everything they can to make the Open Gate Brewery & Barrelhouse an awesome place to get a beer.
The facility is currently only operating on a 2 BBL system, with the 10 BBL and 100 hectaliter brew house still some ways down the road. There are only two brewers on staff currently. Given that the major brewing operations haven't really begun yet, and the taproom doesn't have a full time staff on board, why was the decision made to have a grand opening at this time? Was it to demonstrate progress to the Maryland state and local politicians who Diageo has courted, or were other considerations at play?
We think it’s a pretty rare and, in our opinion awesome, opportunity for someone to drink beer made exclusively by two very talented and experienced brewmasters. They are literally doing everything themselves on a small brewing system right now – this is legitimately hand-brewed beer.
And don’t forget, those beers you’re tasting are R&D for future features at the taproom when the main brewery opens next year.
The Test Taproom is there to do what it says in the name – legitimately test stuff out. Whether that’s beer recipes, hospitality style, brewing techniques, what glassware to use, what T shirts people like best – we want to figure all that out before the grand opening, as you put it, of the main facility. The Test Taproom is a place, as Peter Wiens said last week, to have a conversation with beer drinkers and really get it right before we open next year.
We wanted to invite all our local friends – past, present and future – to come have a beer with us before we opened. We invited a lot of people from the industry, as well as local interest groups and community figures, to get a taste of how the project is developing, as well as have an actual taste of some of the brand new beer we’re quite proud of. We even had some guys from Baltimore’s oldest homebrew club – the Cross Street Irregulars, whose alumni include Hugh Sisson and Brian Strumke – who kindly invited us to one of their meetings last year, gave us some homebrew to try and as well as some great feedback on how to progress the project. The two soft launch events we’ve hosted have been a chance to share a beer with folks, say thanks for having us, and publicly let them know that we look forward to being good neighbors.
Thanks to Andrew for the time and responses!