More than 13 million pints of Guinness Draught Stout will be consumed around the world on St. Patrick’s Day. Although you can enjoy a couple of glasses of the black stuff at your local pub on Sunday, wouldn’t you rather drink Guinness at the Guinness brewery?
The beloved Irish brewer made a splash in 2017 when it opened a taproom and experimental brewery on the site of the old Calvert Distillery just north of Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport, marking the first time since the 1950s that Guinness operated a brewery in the United States. Last summer, it unveiled an upgraded space in the same complex: Open Gate Brewery and Barrel House now has a larger brewery, a visitors center, a spacious bar, a sit-down restaurant and a gift shop, and outside, a wide lawn features an alfresco bar and plots where beer ingredients are growing.
As a result, a brewery synonymous with the Emerald Isle has become one of the fastest-growing tourist attractions in the Old Line State. Diageo, Guinness’s parent company, set a goal of 300,000 visitors in Open Gate’s first year, but it took less than 90 days to notch 100,000. On an average Saturday, the brewery says, it’s not uncommon for 2,500 people to pass through the doors for guided tours, a meal or just to see what’s pouring in the handsome taproom, an area that has couches, tables made from old barrels and a huge central bar topped with illuminated glass bricks.
If you’re wondering why a brewery has become such a destination, it’s worth considering the unique position Guinness occupies in the beer world. It’s beloved by the Irish American community and by those whose only association with Ireland is a love of pubs. Although it’s part of a multibillion-dollar company, sold worldwide alongside sister brands Johnnie Walker Scotch and Smirnoff Vodka, it’s not dismissed by the craft beer aficionados who turn up their noses at any association with macro-brewers, such as Heineken or AB-InBev.
Open Gate Brewery tries to appeal to all of these audiences. While Guinness’s flagship stouts, including the best-selling Draught Stout, Extra Stout and Foreign Extra Stout, are still produced at the landmark St. James’s Gate brewery in Dublin, the company has given the Open Gate team free rein to create IPAs, sours and other “experimental beers” to supplement the taproom’s made-in-Ireland offerings. Of the 20 draft and bottle choices available on a recent visit, more than half were produced there in Baltimore County, mostly on a small system a level below the taproom. “This brewery has been built to remind people that Guinness is a brewery, not just one beer,” jokes brewery brand ambassador Ryan Wagner.
It doesn’t hurt that the Baltimore brewers have solid craft beer credentials: American brewmaster Peter Wiens brewed at Stone in San Diego and in Richmond, while head brewer Hollie Stephenson came to Guinness from Asheville’s Highland Brewing.
So far, Wiens says, the Open Gate Brewery has brewed 60 different beers, ranging from staples like the citrusy IPA and a Belgian-style White Ale, to one-offs such as a hazy New England IPA and the smoky, mole-inspired Morita Milk Stout, which is aged on three varieties of chile peppers. Part of the reason for this remarkable variety is the comparatively smaller-size brewhouse: Open Gate’s has a capacity of 10 barrels, or 31 kegs, at a time — a fraction of the size of Maryland craft brewers Heavy Seas or Flying Dog. (There’s one exception: The equipment used to make Guinness Blonde Ale, which is distributed nationally, brews 100 hectoliters per batch, or about 85 barrels.)
When Open Gate opened, Wiens says, Draught Stout and Blonde Ale were the best sellers. But as time has gone on, “I think people are getting a little more adventurous, trying some of the other beers,” such as the popular Tart Apricot Ale, a fruity but not-too-aggressive kettle sour.
The best introduction to Open Gate is to take one of the free hour-long tours, which are offered multiple times a day but are frequently booked out in advance. (At press time, the first available Saturday tour for a group larger than two is at the end of April.)
The tour goes beyond the “These are the fermentation tanks, this is what raw hops smell like” spiel that is the staple of most brewery visits. Here, guides lead guests around a three-story building that could double as a Guinness museum, drawing on Guinness’s long history: the creation of John Gilroy’s iconic zoo animal ads, the scientific development of nitro kegs and the story of Guinness’s 9,000-year lease in Dublin. Statues of the animals from Gilroy’s ads are scattered around, providing frequent selfie opportunities.
It occasionally comes off as propaganda, but what brewery tour doesn’t? My guide on a recent Wednesday evening had a great sense of humor, at least. “I need to address the non-blue crab in the room,” she joked, standing in front of a mural of a vintage ad containing a large Irish brown crab and a pint of Guinness. “Some people think we chose Maryland because of this crab, but we got the wrong one. Folks, there are no blue crabs in Ireland.”
When the tour ends, there’s an optional $15 tasting that includes samples of four beers — two standards, including the Draught Stout (which tastes almost as fresh as it would in Dublin), and two of the experimental beers. It’s fun, but not essential, although the tasting happens next to a display of Gilroy’s sketches of Guinness’s toucans flying past the Golden Gate Bridge, Mount Rushmore and other American landmarks. There’s also a chance to peek into the 1817 Restaurant, a fine-dining option with seared sea scallops or hanger steak with a stout demi-glace (both $32). More affordable bar food, such as large metal bowls of Chesapeake crab poutine ($16) and Irish dip sandwiches ($12), are available in the taproom.
As interesting as a visit here can be, the seven-month-old attraction remains a work in progress: Once the weather turns, there are plans to use the spacious lawn for concerts, movie nights and maybe even yoga classes. Meanwhile, the original, “temporary” taproom, which has a capacity of 150, might reopen for monthly beer releases and special events, though details are still sketchy.
It should go without saying, but if you’re planning on drinking, don’t drive. The Open Gate Brewery is about a mile from two MARC stations: Halethorpe (Penn Line) and St. Denis (Camden Line), both of which are served by commuter trains from Union Station. The brewery is also a 10-minute drive from Amtrak’s Thurgood Marshall/BWI Airport station, where cabs regularly wait for passengers.
Open Gate is a natural place to have a pint of stout while wearing a “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” shirt on St. Patrick’s Day, but it’s also the kind of spot you can come back to throughout the year, if only to see the latest locally brewed creations on tap. After all, the best-selling swag in the gift shop combines Guinness’s golden harp with the colors of the Maryland flag. Talk about local pride.
5001 Washington Blvd., Halethorpe, Md. Tours offered daily. Tasting session $15. Most taproom pints $7.50.