Guinness temporary taproom to open in Relay next month

Guinness plans to start pouring beers at its new brewery in Relay next month, even as construction continues on the full Open Gate Brewery and Barrel House.

A small-batch brewing system is ready to start producing beer and a temporary taproom is being built in an old warehouse at the southwest Baltimore County property where whiskey and other spirits were distilled for more than 80 years.

“It’s a great way to get things started,” said Andrew Beebe, head of Open Gate Brewery for Diageo, the international liquor conglomerate that is Guinness’ parent company. “There are a lot of people who are quite excited.”

The opening date isn’t set yet, but Diageo officials are hoping to get the test taproom up and running in October. The 200th anniversary of the first import of Guinness from Ireland to the United States is Oct. 16.

The test taproom will be the first piece of what officials hope will become the largest tourist destination in Baltimore County. Diageo plans to spend $50 million on renovations and is promising 70 permanent jobs: 40 in production and 30 in hospitality.

The company has predicted the brewery will attract 250,000 visitors in its first full year.

Once it is fully operational in 2018, the Open Gate Brewery will dedicate a 100-hectaliter brewery and high-speed packaging line to brewing and bottling Guinness American Blonde Lager.

Another building will be open to customers to tour a 10-hectaliter brewery on the ground floor where various types of beer, including new recipes, will be produced. The upper floors of the red-brick building will include a taproom, a retail shop and a full-service restaurant. That building formerly was a “rickhouse” where whiskey was aged and stored.

In between will be a grassy gathering space — in the shape of a pint glass, of course — for outdoor events.

During a tour of the property with reporters Wednesday, Diageo officials said they hope to teach customers about the Guinness brand as well as the history of the Relay property, which was a distillery for generations.

The property opened as Maryland Distilling Company in 1933, but was renamed the Calvert Distillery in 1934. For most of its life, the property was used for distilling Seagram’s products. Diageo bought Seagram’s in 2000. Diageo uses part of the property to age Captain Morgan rum that’s distilled on St. Croix.

“It’s a great combination of stories we can tell,” Beebe said.

The company is working on a community relations plan that will involve charitable giving, partnerships with local bars and possibly collaborating with other Baltimore-area breweries.

The small-batch brewery Guinness is starting with is modest — it will brew about four kegs’ worth of beer at a time — but brewers Peter Wiens and Hollie Stephenson are excited to start brewing test batches. They plan to start with a lager “with a twist,” followed by an India pale ale, a sweet porter and a Belgian beer.

Wiens said the small-batch brewery is something “to tinker with and play with” while the bigger brewery facilities are under construction.

Diageo faced challenges to get to this point, including a protracted debate during the General Assembly session this year over state brewery laws.

Guinness initially asked state lawmakers for a bill that would have allowed it to serve more beer at its taproom than what’s normally allowed at Maryland production breweries. Local craft brewers cried foul at the notion that an international liquor company might get special rules.

After some discussion, Guinness and the local brewers teamed up in an effort to lobby to change the rules for all production breweries, which are licensed to brew large amounts of beer and sell it to restaurants, bars and liquor stores. There are 35 licensed production breweries in Maryland.

On the final weekend of the annual 90-day legislative session, lawmakers approved a bill allowing production breweries to sell more beer on site, including some that’s produced off-site. After selling a certain amount, the breweries are required to buy their own beer back from distributors if they want to sell more in their taprooms.

Breweries licensed as brew pubs, microbreweries and farm breweries are not affected by the legislation.

The legislation gave Diageo what it needed to move forward with the Guinness project in Relay. While Diageo officials acknowledge that the bill wasn’t ideal, they say they are focused on getting their brewery open, not on future legislation.

In the wake of the debate, Comptroller Peter Franchot created a task force he calls “Reform on Tap” that’s examining Maryland’s beer and brewery laws. Franchot, who has aligned himself with craft brewers, has said he’ll use the task force’s ideas to propose legislation in next year’s General Assembly session.

pwood@baltsun.com

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