Most beer drinkers associate Guinness with its dry Irish stout, brewed at St. James Gate in Dublin for the past 261 years. A lot has changed since 1759, including the debut of the first Guinness brewery outside Dublin, the Guinness Open Gate Brewery near Baltimore. The iconic Irish brand debuted the $90 million brewery in 2018. It welcomed more than 400,000 visitors its first year.
While the Maryland brewery produces several stouts — after all, it is Guinness — head brewer Hollie Stephenson says it has been her mission to “challenge people’s perception of Guinness as a traditional stout brewer.” She’s done this by leading its experimental brewing program, which has produced its signature light golden ale, Guinness Blonde, along with the fruity Guinness Salt and Lime Ale, and the citrusy Guinness Galaxy IPA. Indeed, the 4,000-square-foot taproom introduces visitors to about a dozen experimental beers at any given time, Stephenson says.
Most recently, the Open Gate Brewery collaborated with Tennessee Brew Works of Nashville to create a rum barrel-aged cocktail beer, Black-Eyed Susan, which pays homage to the state drink Marylanders often sip during the Preakness Stakes.
After a running start, 2020 took a turn when the brewery shut down in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. It later resumed curbside pickup operations, in April, and then outdoor seating in June. It’s now open both indoors and outdoors, with social distancing and other safety measures in place, such as extra sanitation and a mask-wearing policy for workers and guests.
We chatted with Stephenson about how the brewery adapted in the age of Covid-19, from shutting down right before St. Patrick’s Day, to dedicating $1 million to local Maryland causes, and working on taproom releases for future fans to drink on-site.
1. How did you get started in the beer industry?
I made my first career in government relations in D.C. I was a lobbyist for about six years, and then became a beer fan, kind of a beer geek, really, and decided I wanted to go to brewing school. So I did an intensive brewing program in northeastern England, came back, and decided I was going to commit to this new career from the ground up.
2. What’s the mission of Guinness Open Gate Brewery?
We’re the home of Guinness Blonde, but we hope to use the brewery to grow other regional brands, and even national brands, and run a taproom that is 99 percent research and development.
4. What are some of the challenges you have faced in your career, and how did you overcome them?
I spent my first three years [in the beer industry] working in a large, growing craft brewery out in San Diego. And so, at that time in the industry, even the large companies were growing 20 to 30 percent year over year, which is just huge. So there was quite a bit of expansion. I moved on about three years later and worked for a smaller, still kind of older legacy brewery in North Carolina, Highland Brewing in Asheville.
For regional brewers, growth ground to a halt. I was going to a brewery thinking I was about to start another expansion, and that wasn’t the reality anymore. The industry had slowed for regional brewers, and so it was much more about looking at how to innovate and be strategic in planning your portfolio so that it could be more competitive with smaller craft brewers. How do you stay ahead of the curve with all of the breweries popping up in Asheville, let alone nationwide?
5. How do you think your role has changed in the last six months (during the pandemic)?
Most of the challenges have been on the taproom side. How do we still offer small-batch beers to people? How do we still welcome people safely? That side of the business has actually been able to adapt quite a bit.
We closed right, right before St. Patrick’s Day, before the biggest season of the year for our brand [Guinness], and a huge day for a taproom. Once businesses started to reopen, initially it was just curbside sales because they changed alcohol laws to be a little more lenient so that we could have a shot at selling beer. We kind of waited it out a few weeks, figured out how we were going to set up our curbside service, that was the first piece. That ended up actually going really well. We were able, during that time, to donate our net proceeds to the Maryland Food Bank, which was a great opportunity that arose out of a challenge.
Once everyone was allowed to reopen premises, we took a little bit longer to make sure that we were going to do it sustainably and safely. Our outside space is so huge. And to be able to welcome people back, to start brewing new beer again — that’s been really awesome.
6. How have you managed the crowds at the brewery?
Before, you just walked in and seated yourself. Now, we have hosts at the front gate. People are walked to their seats, so they know that they’re going to a table that’s been cleaned and sanitized. We keep the tables distanced and everyone is masked up and staff has gloves on.
The cool thing is, we’re actually using our tour guides as some of our hosts, so you get a little mini-tour and history when you’re walking in. We also now have a QR code that you can scan at your table using your phone camera, and it brings up our drink menu. You can actually order without having to ever go to a bar. We still do have a walk-up bar, but the lion’s share of the orders come through that QR code.
7. How are you using your position [at Guinness U.S.] to push forward on racial equity on inclusivity in the industry?
Guinness brand dedicated $1 million to our area that we’ve split into a couple of donations. One is for the Maryland Food Bank, and one for the Baltimore Action Legal Team. But we’re looking at how we use the rest of the fund to really move the needle for local organizations to support equality and social justice.
A small way is we’ve brewed the Black is Beautiful collaboration. There’s a brewery in Texas called Weathered Souls Brewing Co. that developed an imperial stout recipe and a whole brand construct — a label and the beer name, Black is Beautiful — and shared it with all of the brewers in the U.S. and said, “Everybody that wants to get on board with this, brew your version of this beer and donate whatever you can to a social justice [cause] that’s local to you.” So, we were able to brew that collaboration, and put it in a can and in kegs, and released it to support the Job Opportunities Task Force in Baltimore. Version two is coming in late November, so we’re excited about that. We hope to continue these collaborations.
8. What’s next for the [Baltimore] brewery?
We’re going to keep working on our small-batch package and draft releases. We did a collaboration with Tennessee Brew Works; they came here and we put the beer into rum barrels from this site. It’s called Black-Eyed Susan. Obviously, Black-Eyed Susan is the Maryland state flower. There’s a cocktail called Black-Eyed Susan, which is a rum cocktail with fruit juices like pineapple and orange. The beer was actually in the barrel for 15 months. We took it out and put real pineapples and real citrus fruits in it. A cool thing they’re doing here at the breweries is garnishing it with a cherry. It’s a super-fun beer. We’re going to keep doing these cool things that you can only get from the brewery.
9. What opportunities do you think there are for up-and-coming talent [in the beer industry]?
There are a lot of scholarships out there for brewing programs. That’s always a way to start. A lot of people romanticize brewing, and when it comes down to it, it’s a very manual job when you’re starting out and you’re learning. And so, I always like to tell people, do a course. You can find quick courses to do — see if it’s something that you still click with. Or, make friends at one of your local breweries and see if you can shadow for a day to get a feel for the work. It’s not for everybody, even if you love beer.