I’ll always have a soft spot for Guinness. The first taste of beer I can remember is at St. James’s Gate Brewery in Dublin. The bartenders poured my parents big, foamy glasses and swirled clovers into the head. It’s a moment that has always stuck with me and part of why even when I walk into a bar with a draft list full of craft options I’ll end up with a cascading pint in front of me.
However, in the last few years, Guinness has lost a significant percentage of it’s sales worldwide. It’s the same struggle that all major brands have faced- increasing liquor consumption, craft beer, as well as growing domestic brands in foreign markets. Between 2008 and 2014 Guinness lost roughly a fifth of its overall volume leaving many to worry about its future.
In 2015, Guinness managed to right its ship and begin to regain sales, and are up around 4% overall in the last 2 years. They have also managed to maintain a significant yet tenuous foothold in the United States beer market with numbers comparable to larger craft breweries such as Sierra Nevada or New Belgium. In an attempt to compete for the attention of craft beer drinkers Guinness released a blonde ale as well as a Nitro IPA, both of which have faded into relative obscurity after lackluster reception. However, their smaller batch Brewer’s Project series has been significantly better reviewed, and shows promise for Guinness going forward.
Guinness has made clear that their flagship stouts will continue to be brewed in Dublin, so the general idea for this brewery is to increase production of beers like those created in the Brewer’s Project, and provide a home for Guinness’ more experimental projects. Previous entries have included a Rye Pale Ale with Mosaic hops, as well as a Milk stout. While these have been mostly well received, I have trouble seeing Guinness competing in the same space as their American regional rivals or more importantly getting craft consumers to change how they think of Guinness.
Considering the difficulty other corporate breweries have had infiltrating the American craft market, it’s hard to image Guinness being more successful. Furthermore, the idea of a Guinness product made in America doesn’t exactly sit right with me. Guinness occupies an Irish space, and a Guinness beer made in Maryland takes away from the brand’s identity. However, Guinness may be looking to distance itself slightly in the American mind, and change its image as something you drink on St. Patrick’s Day or at Irish-themed bars with names like O’Hoolihan’s into something that will appeal to craft beer consumers.
It’s the association with St. Patrick’s Day debauchery that makes it difficult as an American to imagine Guinness making a complex West Coast IPA or a red-wine barrel aged sour. They did do a barrel-aged beer, Open Gate, that has been very well reviewed. It’s not that I don’t see Guinness making a good beer, but that I worry that nothing they make could be good enough to overcome their image in the American mindset. Adding to that, craft drinkers can smell a larger company fishing for their dollars. Used to incursions from AB and others, it’s hard to imagine people allowing Guinness and their parent company, Diageo, a seat at the cool kids’ table.
All said though, I’m more than happy to give Guinness a chance, and am surprisingly excited by being able to recreate my experience at St. James Gate in a day’s drive. Despite my reservations about this project, I’m interested to see what they’ll be doing and who they’ll be doing it with. The brewery is scheduled to open in Fall of 2017.