When the Guinness Open Gate Brewery marked its one-year anniversary in 2019, the brewery’s ambassador Ryan Wagner observed that, in some ways, the first year felt 10 times as long, given all that had happened since the taproom’s gates opened in Relay.
This week, as Guinness prepares to celebrate its third anniversary in Baltimore County, Wagner once again is feeling a bit befuddled about time, especially after a pandemic year that sometimes felt decades long, and yet steadily devoured the days and weeks until an entire year had past.
“In some ways, it feels like three months,” Wagner said Tuesday, and, “in some ways, it’s felt like 30 years.”
Time may still feel out of whack, but as Guinness rings in another year, the business outlook is a little more hopeful. After months of closures, capacity restrictions and suspended tours, the brewery is seeing an influx of visitors, drawing in 6,000 to 7,000 people a week.
“The numbers compared to a year ago are astronomical,” Wagner said.
Covid-19, of course, took a bite out of growth during the height of the pandemic. After smashing expectations by attracting some 400,000 visitors in its first year in business, brewery officials said that as of Year 3, about 800,000 people have visited the brewery in total. In that time, Guinness staff have brewed more than 250 experimental beers for the taproom and the brewery has been the site of “dozens of marriage proposals,” according to a press release.
The brewery also went through a recent staffing shuffle with the departure of Head Brewer Hollie Stephenson, whose last day at the Guinness Brewery was in May. Wagner said senior brewer Sean Brennan was promoted to fill her role.
Other changes at the brewery in the last year include a greater focus on outdoor seating, a revamp of menu offerings and a condensed opening schedule.
Wagner said the brewery’s ample outdoor tables have been very popular during the pandemic, prompting Guinness staff to add more outdoor seating options. As for the food, “we finally decided to follow the best advice, which is keep it simple,” he said.
While Guinness’ taproom and third-floor restaurant used to offer different menus, Wagner said both venues now have a shared and streamlined menu that focuses on hand-held and shareable dishes featuring global flavors, as well as Irish classics like beef stew and fish and chips. Outside, a newly installed semi-permanent kitchen space has helped the brewery to expand its patio food offerings, and a former food truck has been converted into an ice cream truck selling cones, milkshakes and sundaes.
The brewery, which used to be open seven days a week, is now open Thursdays through Sundays instead. Wagner said that schedule is likely to continue at least into the near future.
“It’s been a slow but intentional rollout for us over the last 12 to 14 months as we’ve expanded what we can do, or redo in many ways,” he said, “but there are a lot of things that I think we’re doing better now than we were doing pre-Covid, whether that’s getting beers into the hands of guests quicker or understanding what types of food offerings our guests are looking for.”
Guinness’ third anniversary celebration is scheduled to take place over two weekends — July 29-Aug. 1 and Aug. 5-8 — and will feature four special beer releases, food specials and giveaways.
On July 29, the brewery will roll out a 3rd Anniversary Honey Amber Ale, brewed with honey from local purveyor Apex Apiary, as well as a jalapeño-infused version of the same brew, which will only be available on draft.
Aug. 5 will bring a new round of special releases, including the 3rd Anniversary Barrel-Aged Grand Cru, an 11% alcohol-by-volume brew that blends an Imperial Stout, aging in bourbon barrels since 2019, with a bourbon-aged English Barleywine. Another limited release, Arm in Arm, is an ale infused with dried lavender, lemon peel and blueberry puree that was devised in collaboration with more than 40 members of the brewery’s hospitality team.
To go with the beers, the brewery will be serving free cookies in flavors designed to pair well with each brew’s flavor profile. Offerings include a blueberry lemon cookie with lavender glazer, a honey graham cookie with a toffee or caramel center and a double chocolate cookie with raspberries.
Visitors can also vie for giveaways of merchandise like T-shirts, hats and hoodies. A grand prize winner will get a free burger at the brewery every week for a year.
In its fourth year, the brewery will focus on community, Wagner said.
After wrapping up a six-month “Allyship Through Collaboration” series featuring beers brewed with the input of Black Marylanders, the brewery is looking for new ways to continue highlighting the region’s diversity.
From a beer point of view, Guinness and its brewers plan to “just keep doing what we do,” Wagner said. “The sky is the limit for us, and I think as we continue to come out of Covid what we have learned out of the last 16 months will continue to guide us.”
The Guinness brewery in Dublin has been around for 262 years,” he added, “so we’ve got some work to do if we want to catch up to them.”
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