Food & Drink

How I Am Helping Put An American Spin on Guinness Beer

“At first, people had the reaction, ‘Wow I can’t believe Guinness did this.’”

Hollie Stephenson
Hollie Stephenson | Courtesy of Guinness Open Gate Brewery
Hollie Stephenson | Courtesy of Guinness Open Gate Brewery
After falling in love with Belgian beers and dark brown ales, Hollie Stephenson made a career shift. She took an apprenticeship at the BrewLab in Sunderland, England, spending 12-hour days earning her certificate in practical brewing right as the craft beer boom was taking off in the U.S. From there, she worked at Stone Brewing in San Diego, learning the West Coast IPA process, and Highland Brewing in Asheville. Now, she is the head brewer of the Guinness Open Gate Brewery in Maryland, the first U.S. brewery for the brand in more than 60 years. Stephenson discusses her first beer experiences, how she is infusing American styles and ingredients into the famous Irish brand, and what American value she most appreciates. As told to Jess Mayhugh.

My entry into beer really was largely due to The Brickskeller, which at the time was the time the oldest and most pioneering beer bar in DC. It was an institution. They started out with a book of imports, which slowly turned to domestic over time. That would have been 2002 -- definitely early on in the craft moment in America. My entryway through that was largely imports, and especially Belgian beers. I was at a concert in Northern Virginia and I saw people walking around with dark, black pints and it was Abita Turbodog. It blew my mind, it was so good. It opened my eyes to so many new styles and new ways of drinking. And then Guinness followed shortly thereafter. The World Cup happens and you have to wake up at some ungodly hour to watch and Guinness became my soccer beer.

American beer has meant different things to different people depending on your circle and time period you came up in the industry. Everything has changed a lot in the last five years, in terms of growth models and how people are drinking. Everything became about the corner breweries, kind of like the coffee shop model. And now with mobile canning, there is so much more accessibility and experimentation happening in the U.S. I went to a brewing school in England and my teachers thought dry-hopping was an abomination but home brewers in the U.S. and Sierra Nevada and Stone built their brands off dry-hopping. An important American beer was Stone IPA because I learned everything about dry-hopping under the Mitch Steele regime. Before the New England hazy phase, every brewery made a West Coast IPA and now every brewery in California is making hazies. It’s so wild. It’s fair to say that America likes to break the rules.

Hollie Stephenson
Courtesy of Guinness Open Gate Brewery

Putting an American spin on Guinness is something I have in mind every day. The whole point of what we’ve done is to show people a side of Guinness they’ve never seen before. I have permission to try new things. But obviously there are ideals that you have to remember. The traditional connection to Guinness IPA, for example, is we use Guinness roast barley and stout yeast. So the connection can be the ingredients. The Stock Ale was a barrel-aged beer we released last fall, and it was a nod to the old history of people blending stouts, which is how we got the famous two-part pour that everyone knows today. So sometimes it’s more about the story.

The American piece of this is they intentionally hired American craft brewers. Every one of us is a beer geek before we were a brewer. We know the styles we like, we generally follow trends. We are brewing styles that have made American beer what it is today, breaking the rules, putting fruit in a beer if we want to, and using local ingredients. We use malt from Dark Cloud Malthouse or cascara from Vent Coffee Roasters. Naming it and how we market it, sometimes there are hurdles and limits on that stuff. But as far as making the beer, we’ve been able to do whatever we want. The one constant is -- whether it’s a vintage lager or an imperial stout -- all of it has to have some strain of Guinness yeast and Guinness roast barley.

Guinness IPA was the second recipe we ever brewed and it’s unchanged. It is just about as dry, bitter, piney, and citrusy as a satisfying IPA could be. At first, people had the reaction, ‘Wow I can’t believe Guinness did this. It’s so West Coast.’ There was a learning curve from them in the beginning, like don’t mess with my Guinness. But people just started changing. They’d try one or two things because they thought it was fun. It’s funny, any time we put an IPA on in the taproom, that’s what people are drinking the most. You wouldn’t necessarily have guessed that. People would have guessed at least 50 percent would be stout sales with all the traditionalists. Guinness Draught Stout is still only made in Ireland. We’re not trying to change the stout -- we’re trying to change the American story for Guinness. There are so many breweries around the world. They make their own versions of African Guinness in Nigeria and you talk to someone there and they’ll tell you Guinness is Nigerian. For 60 years in America, people have identified Guinness as Irish. We are trying to figure out what American Guinness is.

For me, America is about equality and bringing other people along with you. That’s what’s been really cool working here -- it’s by far the most diverse company I’ve ever worked for. From my experience, actions back up values. I’m super proud that we’ve donated $100 million to help on-premise businesses get back on their feet. Separate from that, a $20 million fund was started for minority-owned businesses that were disproportionately affected by COVID-19. We just got $1 million to use towards social justice and legal reform and to boost organizations focused on equality, including the Baltimore Action Legal Team. It’s also not just about donating -- it’s about creating an inclusive space to invite people in where everyone feels like they can own the beer community. I think a lot of brewery taprooms are not very good at that.

Last year, there was a push from our parent company, Diageo, to have a rainbow flag fly next to the state flag and the American flag outside of every production site during the month of June. Out front, in sight of a major road and where hundreds of thousands of visitors come through a year, we put that rainbow flag up. It was really emotional for me. Coming from a place that wasn't friendly and a family that wasn’t open, it means a lot to be working at a place that’s open to things like that. Even if we weren’t in a pandemic, Pride would have been very different this year because it’s about being in the streets fighting for Black Lives Matter and for trans lives. Pride doesn’t have to be a big parade of corporate sponsors. It’s much more fitting to celebrate Pride with protests, since that’s how it all started.

At the outset of the pandemic, we did open for curbside later than everyone else and part of that was making sure we had all our ducks in a row because we are a big company. We wanted to do it safely both for our staff and for the public. And we already decided we weren’t going to make money off of the beer. One of the cool things we could do when we opened up was by donating all net proceeds to the Maryland Food Bank. We did move quicker to open our outside area because we have such a huge space. Our picnic tables are literally six feet long, and they’re really far apart from another. We can be full and everyone is so well-spaced because of how huge it is.

A trend that has been very measurable across the industry since our “new normal” is people going back to flagship beers. They are craving nostalgia. People aren’t going towards the edgiest, craziest things. I’ve found myself doing that with food and music, too. I’ve been chasing so many new experiences over the years that I’ve forgotten how freakin' good that old familiar stuff is. I’ve been going back to what my grandma used to feed us and I haven’t cooked like that for years and years. Because it’s hard! Grits have made many appearances. It’s comforting to be able to go back to good memories when everything else is uncertain.

Stephenson recommends these all-American beers:

Pale Ale by Sierra Nevada
“For me, this is an American classic that helped to define what American beer has become beyond mass-produced lagers. It is also a pale ale that was a bit before its time in that it is a very hoppy representation of the style for having originated when it did, which is one reason it has stood the test of time as people’s palates have evolved to love lots of hops and IPAs. This beer is always consistent, quality, hoppy, and satisfying.”
 
Stonewall Inn Session IPA by Brooklyn Brewery
“I have so many happy associations with this beer from past times hanging out with friends in Brooklyn hopping around bars and visiting Brooklyn Brewery. It checks all the boxes for a perfect citrusy session IPA at 4-ish percent. It is also the only year-round beer and charitable collaboration in the LGBTQ+ space that I know of, not to mention that the brewery is helmed by an industry hero. This beer makes me smile.”
 
Sunshine Pilsner by Troegs
“This was one of my early favorite beers to drink seasonally when I first got into the craft world. It is summertime in a glass and brewed an hour-and-a-half up the road.”
 
Wide Mouth White Ale by Guinness
“This is my beer of 2020. Throughout these times of social distancing, drinking this beer on my back patio has been key to my sanity and relaxation. It is a wheat beer brewed with coriander, lemon, and orange peel, but unlike its witbier cousins, it is brewed with Guinness yeast (not Belgian). I am also proud that this is the second Baltimore-born Guinness beer that we have released outside the brewery gates, and I am happy that it will be around this summer.”

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Jess Mayhugh is a Cities Editor at Thrillist who very vaguely remembers her first Guinness pint. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.