Lucky Charm
Baltimore magazine|April 2020
SINCE LAUNCHING ITS ONLY AMERICAN BREWERY, GUINNESS FINDS A SECOND HOME IN BALTIMORE.
MIKE UNGER

SCOTT WOLFARTH AND FIVE of his buddies are gathered around the corner of a long, bustling, stainless steel bar. In front of each sits a perfectly poured pint of Guinness.

Close your eyes and you can picture it: a glass of jet-black beer with that iconic creamy head that somehow seems to settle just above the rim without cascading over it. The six-pack of friends, mostly from New Jersey, have known each other since kindergarten, roughly 50 years ago, and for the past 20 or so, they’ve been taking an annual guys trip. The inaugural one was to Boston; this year, it’s Baltimore. Regardless of the destination, the first beer that touches their lips when they get there is always a Guinness.

Unless they decide to one day cross the pond to Ireland itself, it’s going to be hard to top this pint.

“I had been here a couple times, and I knew these guys would love it,” says Wolfarth from the tasting room at the Guinness Open Gate Brewery, the legendary Irish beer brand’s only outpost in the United States. “I love the idea of bringing beer culture to places it can be accessed so easily. I just think there’s something magical about that.”

It’s a dreary Saturday in January, an ideal afternoon to seek warmth in the comforts of a pub, or in this case, a brewery. As it frequently is, the taproom is filled nearly to its 250-person capacity, but not everyone sports the stout mustache often worn, wittingly or not, by drinkers of Guinness’ signature style. The contents of other glasses are decidedly blonder, or browner, which may come as a surprise to those who associate Guinness exclusively with its most famous variety. “For so many people that come visit us here, Guinness is one beer poured out of a nitro faucet, and that’s it,” says Ryan Wagner, the brewery ambassador, who’s in charge of training staff and spreading the Guinness gospel. “When people take the tour, they’ll look at the menu and, with no malice in their hearts, they’ll say to me, ‘Who did you guys get to brew all these other beers for you?’ This place exists in many ways to remind people that Guinness is not a beer, it’s a brewery.”

And one that has changed the face of the Maryland beer industry. More than 600,000 people (through late January) have visited the Relay campus, just south of Baltimore City, less than five miles from BWI Airport, since it opened in August 2018. What they’ve found is not a brewery that simply replicates the one founded in Dublin at the equally behemoth St. James’s Gate Brewery, but one that embraces American-style beer made by local brewers using, whenever possible, local ingredients. With the exception of a few iconic stouts, which are shipped in kegs from the motherland, all the beer poured here—porters, blondes, pilsners, ales—is made here, and most is available only on-site.

“Right now, the United States has the most innovative, creative beer culture in the world,” says Wagner, a Baltimore native. “It would have been easy to select a few members of the brewing team from Dublin and say, ‘Hey guys, we’re opening a new brewing site in the U.S., can you go over there and make some beer for us?’—but they made it a point to hire an American craft brewing team. Authenticity is an important word for us around here.

We want to be a legitimate brewery in this country and not just a façade with a harp on it.”

In other words, Guinness isn’t just a visitor with a green card—it has established dual citizenship.

ARTHUR GUINNESS was making beer in his native Ireland before Washington, Jefferson, or Franklin helped create the United States. The company just celebrated its 261st anniversary. Its history in America began on October 16, 1817, when the first shipment of Guinness reached Charleston, South Carolina. But save for a short period from 1949 to 1954, when the company briefly operated a facility in Long Island City, New York, it hasn't owned a brewery here.

The place it chose to re-plant its flag in the U.S. has a spirited history of its own. The Baltimore County site first opened in 1933, right after the repeal of Prohibition, as the Maryland Distilling Company. It was soon after purchased by Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, which would help develop the region’s beloved Calvert Whiskey. Diageo, the parent company that Guinness helped create in 1997, acquired Seagram and the site in 2001.

By the time construction started on the Open Gate Brewery in February 2017, only 12 full-time employees were left. Eighteen months and $90 million later, the location looked quite different.

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