Saturday, 26 July 2014

A Drop of the Black Stuff

Few brands are more iconic and well-known in the world.

The first day's proceedings at the recent European Beer Bloggers' Conference in Dublin ended with a tour around the world famous Guinness Brewery at St James’s Gate. The tour was followed by a beer and food pairing, which was one of the highlights of the trip. Before I go any further, I have to say the Guinness Brewery was not at all like I expected. I had been told beforehand that the site occupied some 64 acres, but it wasn’t until we approached the maze of streets which led to the brewery that I realised just how old parts of it are.

We arrived on foot; having been escorted in a number of groups by guides from the Dublin Tourist Authority. Our guide was quite a character, and on the 20 minutes’ walk over from the conference centre, he pointed out places of interest, including many historic sites. These included Dublin’s two cathedrals, and ranged from the famous Halfpenny Bridge over the River Liffey to the church where Handel’s Messiah was performed for the first time . He also told us some facts about Arthur Guinness. We already knew that the founder of the brewing dynasty had been married in The Church which is now the conference centre where the EBBC took place. But much more was to follow, including the fact that Guinness was the largest employer in Dublin, and at one time it was reckoned a third of the adult population of the city was working for the company, in one capacity or another.

Cobbled streets and an old rail-track, leading to St James's Gate
As we neared our destination, we entered a series of quite narrow cobbled streets, running between stone-built 19th Century buildings. I was glad we had a guide with us, as it would have been quite easy to lose ones bearings. There were several, iconic black-painted gates, emblazoned with the legend St James’s Gate, but after several twists and turns we reached our destination; the Guinness Storehouse.

The latter is the company’s impressive visitor centre. Converted from a former fermentation block, this multi-floored Victorian building is now one of Dublin’s premier visitor attractions. It was still busy with throngs of visitors, despite it being early evening. I suppose virtually all visitors to the Irish capital want both a souvenir, plus a taste of its most famous product; even those people who wouldn’t normally drink Guinness! I didn’t bother going in the extensively stocked shop, although being open plan I could see it was stocked with every conceivable piece of Guinness merchandise imaginable.

19th Century tunnel under the brewery

Once the various parties were all assembled, we were told we would be getting a sneak preview of Guinness’s brand spanking new brew-house; which is still not fully commissioned. So after donning hi-visibility jackets and safety goggles (talk about OTT!) we were led across to the new,  No. 4 Brew-House. On the way we passed through a 19th Century underground tunnel, constructed to give workers safe passage from one part of the site to the other, avoiding both roads and the narrow-gauge railway which once criss-crossed the site. We also passed the No.3 Brew-House, constructed in the 1980's, which is still in operation, but due to be de-commissioned once the new plant comes fully on-stream.

The entrance to the shining new No.4 Brew-House
Once in the new brew-house we ascended to the top floor of the building where we were met by Fergal Murray, Master Brewer at Guinness, along with several members of his team. As the brew-house is still being commissioned, and the fact that we were the first outside visitors to be shown the plant, we were asked not to take photos. This didn’t bother me, as apart from the tops of a series of stainless steel vessels, which could have been coppers or lauter tuns, there was precious little to see anyway. I have to say new, hi-tech breweries don’t do much for me; in fact they’re a huge turn-off. Give me a working Victorian brewery any day, complete with levers and pulleys, plus various wheels to turn, rather than a soul-less steel-framed shed, and I’m much more interested.

Fergus and his team bombarded us with various facts and figures, but as I wasn’t taking notes most of them went completely over my head. What I do know is the new brew-house is extremely versatile and is capable of brewing both ales and lagers. When it comes fully on stream, not only will the adjacent No. 3 Brew-House close, but so will a number of parent company, Diageo’s other smaller, Irish breweries, including those at Dundalk, Kilkenny and Waterford, with hundreds of job losses. As well as stouts and Harp lager, St James's Gate will now brew both Bud and Carlsberg under licence, plus the Smithwicks ale brands.

There are a few crumbs of comfort in relation to the new brew-house, and these are that Diageo’s original plan was to build a new mega-brewery, elsewhere in Ireland, on a green-field site, and then sell the historic St James’s Gate site off for redevelopment. Fortunately, for Dubliners, the financial crisis of 2008-2009 intervened, forcing the company to change its plans. The construction and opening of the new brew-house confirms Diageo’s affirmation to continue brewing in the heart of the Irish capital for many years to come.

Walking back to the Guinness Storehouse
After our brief tour we retraced our steps to the Guinness Storehouse. As mentioned earlier, this visitor centre has been converted from a former fermenting block, but what I hadn’t realised was that the Perspex construction, which takes up the central core area of the building is actually in the shape of a gigantic pint glass. We were ushered into a lift which took us to the top of the building – all very “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. Here, several floors up, is one of the best views over Dublin to be had anywhere in the city.

I believe they call the area we were shown into the atrium, and it was here that we were to be suitably fed and watered. The Guinness management had pulled out all the stops to lay on a “beer and food pairing” for us. Starting with oysters and bottled Extra Stout, we moved on to fish and chips with Smithwick’s Bitter, followed by some superb steak burgers with Guinness Foreign Extra Stout. Finally there was chocolate mouse with Special Export Stout, brewed especially for the Belgian market.

All the pairings worked well, although I skipped on the oysters; raw shell fish have never struck me as a particularly good idea, and I didn’t want to risk a dodgy stomach spoiling the rest of my stay in Dublin!  After the food, Fergal gave a presentation, followed by a short question and answer session. One of the topics which came up was the special Guinness concentrate, or “essence”. This is sent overseas to be added to locally brewed Guinness, especially out in Africa, where the “base” beer is often brewed from more locally available materials, such as sorghum. The concentrate imparts the true Guinness “flavour” to the locally brewed stout.

Shortly after, we said farewell to our generous hosts at Guinness, and were whisked off in a fleet of coaches to begin the Pilsner Urquell party, I posted about earlier, where there was yet more food and yet more beer!

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