Ale infused with juniper, sage, and dandelion. A strawberry and basil porter. A beer brewed with lactose, giving it a smooth, creamy feel on the palate. Such concoctions sound like the brainchild of a startup in Boulder, Berkeley, or Berlin? Think again. The beers are on tap at the Open Gate Brewery, a small-batch pub on the back side of the vast Guinness plant in central Dublin. “We’ve got license to do anything we want,” says Peter Simpson, the master brewer in charge of the project.
And by that, he really means anything. When an American brewer named Heather came for a visit, they honored her with a beer flavored with heather. A member of the Guinness team loves plums; a damson plum brew followed. And for a brewer’s wedding? Ferment to Be, a beer made something like champagne, with a secondary fermentation in the bottle. Simpson’s team cooks up test brews almost daily and offers pub-goers a new beer every two weeks or so.
Open Gate highlights Big Beer’s efforts to cope with the growing popularity of the offerings of small startups. Craft brewers now account for 20 percent of the $106 billion U.S. beer market—and almost all the growth the industry has seen in the past decade. Jean-François van Boxmeer, Heineken’s chief executive officer, has said the threat from craft beer is one of his company’s greatest challenges. Analysts say Anheuser-Busch InBev’s ongoing acquisition of rival SABMiller is aimed at countering craft. Those concerns have spurred the industry’s giants to buy into smaller brewers, whose products are often sold with little mention of their corporate parentage. InBev, for instance, owns Goose Island Brewery and Four Peaks Brewery, and SABMiller makes Leinenkugel’s and Blue Moon.
But lately, the big names have started experimenting with new brewing processes, unexpected ingredients, and historical recipes to establish craft cred while preserving the megabrands they’ve spent decades nurturing. Heineken has introduced H41, brewed with yeast harvested in Patagonia, the first installment in a series of new flavors the company calls Lager Explorations. And Carlsberg offers Rebrew, based on yeast extracted from 19th-century bottles found in the cellar of the company’s 140-year-old laboratory in Copenhagen. “Craft is growing at double-digits as consumers look for something new—new taste, new flavors,” says Flemming Besenbacher, chairman of the Carlsberg Foundation, which controls the beermaker.
While Guinness has had an experimental brewery at the Open Gate site since the 1960s, it only recently started to produce the fanciful creations that are the hallmark of craft brewers. “We’re not craft, but we’re not mainstream lager either,” Mark Sandys, the executive in charge of the beer business at Diageo, the owner of Guinness, says over a pint of ale at Open Gate. “We’re somewhere in between, and Open Gate lets us experiment with how far we can go in either direction.”
The place looks something like a high school chemistry lab. The work benches are covered with scales, beakers, and graduated cylinders. A refrigerator has 28 varieties of hops. There’s a storeroom with 50-kilo bags of cassava, sorghum, banana starch, and other ingredients for Diageo-owned breweries across Africa. The pub has lines that can produce 30-liter and 30-keg batches. The smaller lines are used to test ideas, while the bigger ones turn out beers that will be sold at Open Gate.
Since December, the pub has been open to outsiders on Thursday and Friday evenings. Customers pay €6 ($6.75) for a flight of four half pints, and additional beers run €5 a pint. The sales are enough to cover the cost of running the place but usually not the beers’ ingredients. Simpson says he may start hosting meetings of homebrewers, where hobbyists can get together and sample each others’ creations alongside whatever the pros at Guinness might dream up. Customers are given forms to critique the brews, though most have little chance of ever being commercialized. “If we were to make this commercially, we’d use every strawberry in Ireland,” Nick Doyle, a Guinness “brand ambassador” and bartender at Open Gate, says of the strawberry porter the pub sold this summer.
A handful, though, will be rolled out to a broader market. Before the pub opened to outsiders, Simpson came up with Hop House 13, a malted lager made with hops from Australia and the U.S. “I wanted to produce a lager that I would drink myself,” he says. And two years ago the crew at Open Gate created West Indies porter, a Guinness sub-brand based on a recipe found in a logbook from 1801. Today, Simpson says he has high hopes for a rye pale ale, created for the company’s Christmas party and sold at Open Gate since last winter. “We’re very fortunate that the craft brew wave happened,” Simpson says. “Without it, we wouldn’t be able to do what we’re doing.”
The bottom line: After years of ceding share to upstarts, Big Beer is seeking to bolster its craft cred with traditional recipes and new flavors.