Saturday 28 June 2014

Blogs from the Black Stuff

Guinness gatehouse
It still amazes me just how iconic Guinness is to Dublin. When people I know heard I was in Dublin, some said they assumed I'd be drinking it at every opportunity. The brewery's impressive visitors centre is Ireland's most popular tourist attraction, and the company inspires fierce loyalty especially among older Dubliners, thanks to generous sponsorship of arts, sports and the city in general.

It's also very easy to be snobbish though about such a mass market mega-brand. Not only is it a familiar choice world-wide for people who are wary of the unknown, but it's been somewhat simplified over the years – oh, and Guinness was the major culprit in the consolidation that wiped out almost the entire 19th century and early 20th century Irish brewing industry.

But when the opportunity came to visit Diageo Ireland's brand spanking new and extremely shiny new Guinness brewery at St James's Gate, as part of the 2014 European Beer Bloggers Conference, I was hardly going to turn it down, was I? And what a facility it is! Massive stainless steel brew kettles capable of holding 1000 hectolitres each, in a brewhouse that has cost €100m or so, and will probably brew 4 million hl of stout a year, plus 1.2 million hl of ale and lager. That's almost a billion* pints a year in total, 70% of which will go for export.

Feargal Murray outside brewhouse #3
This is the fourth brewhouse on the site, said Feargal Murray, Guinness master brewer and global brand ambassador (there's that mega-brand again), and the first to be bring in all the latest automation and sustainability technologies. Quite what will happen to the second and third brewhouses, which currently lie derelict – the first from 1759 is of course long gone – isn't clear. There was a plan during the boom times of 2007-8 to sell off the site for development, but resistance from the city council put paid to that. The second plan as I understand it was to build a new big brewery at outside Dublin at Leixlip – which was where Arthur Guinness started brewing in the 1750s, by the way – but retaining a smaller one on part of the St James's Gate site for heritage reasons. The economic bust put paid to that one, however.

Brewhouse #4 also replaces several other breweries – Diageo has closed its Dundalk, Kilkenny and Waterford sites, with hundreds of job losses, and moved all its Irish beer production to Dublin. As well as stouts and Harp lager, St James's Gate now brews both Bud and Carlsberg under licence, plus the Smithwicks ale brands.

There's also a 10-barrel pilot brewery, an extract plant producing “essence of Guinness” for the company's other 40+ production sites around the world, a huge malt roastery, and all sorts of other things going on, including bacterial souring of beer under controlled conditions – a small amount of soured beer is blended into the Foreign Extra Stout.

The visit was fascinating, and the brewers as dedicated to their craft as almost any I've met. There's a mass of history on site, including the remains of miles of narrow-gauge railway (left), and a tunnel between the two halves of the site that was designed by one of the architects of the London Tube. I find the main brands a bit bland – especially the variations they're now doing on Smithwicks ale, in an attempt to be 'crafty' – but perhaps that's an inevitable part of the inertia and conservatism that comes from working within a huge company.

The stand-outs really were the minor brands – the 8% Guinness Special Export that's brewed for Belgian distributor John Martin for instance, and Night Porter, the wonderful chocolate porter than won Diageo Ireland's annual brewing competition for its staff. Sadly the latter is only on sale within the company – a missed opportunity, I suspect.

* US-style short billion of course

1 comment:

  1. "When people I know heard I was in Dublin, some said they assumed I'd be drinking it at every opportunity."

    Funnily enough Bryan, I got the same reaction; it's as if people just can't conceive there might be other beers available there as well!

    ps I still have your bottle of Night Porter. Unfortunately I won't be at GBBF, as we will be in Munich instead. A mix up with the dates, as I forgot GBBF has been put back a week.