guinness extra stout mainThree years ago, almost to the day, I had one of the oddest interviews of my life. I was in the midst of research for my book The Beer Bible, and had already completed one swing through Europe touring breweries and interviewing brewers. It was only by coincidence that the man on the other end of the phone was Fergal Murray, the master brewer at Guinness, and that St. Patrick’s Day had just passed. Coincidence or no, as the shamrocks start festooning walls each year, I’ll remember it as the time Murray spent 20 minutes dodging questions and keeping Guinness’ secrets safe.

It was a miracle we were even speaking at all. I had been trying for months to get through Diageo’s corporate wall (that’s the giant drinks company that owns Guinness) to find someone who could even put me in touch with Murray. Totally by chance, Guinness’ U.S. publicity team sent an email about a Guinness promotion in advance of St. Patrick’s Day and offered an interview with the master brewer. What luck!

By this point, I’d learned that visiting the brewery was out of the question. Guinness is the only company that flatly refused to let me see its facility. If you do much research, you discover that this has been true for a while—no one has seemed to so much as glimpsed a mash tun for years. I knew that I’d only have 15 or 20 minutes with Murray, and I wanted to learn a bit about what was behind the tall walls at St. James Gate. I’d also been fascinated by that strange, tangy note in Guinness’ Extra Stout, and hoped to learn its secret. I figured if I got any info on those two things, I’d be ahead of the game.

Fergal Murray

I started trying to understand something about this brewery I wasn’t allowed to see. The only information you can find is fragmentary information like this, on the Guinness website: “The grist is mixed with hot water—known as ‘liquor’—and then passes through a ‘Steel’s Masher’” This seemed at least somewhat suggestive—Steel’s Mashers are old Victorian devices. Could Guinness’ apparently state-of-the-art facility retain Victorian touches, as the website suggested?

Murray was instantly uncomfortable. “Ummm, yeah. Um, yeah,” he began, clearly at a loss about what to say. “[I] wouldn’t start with the description you have about traditional or anything like that. … It’s totally new and modern in every sense of the word. So traditional terms like mashers and stuff like that—I don’t think we’ve had a Steel’s Masher as such in quite a while.”

At the time, this seemed evasive, but when I pulled up the audio and listened to it again, it struck me that Murray was just trying to figure out what to do with this blatantly misleading text from the website. It sort of set the tone for the entire interview, where I asked a question and Murray spent several minutes, punctuated by murmurs, groans, and sighs, trying not to answer it.

I tried to shift gears after the Steel’s Masher debacle and tried a more neutral question: How big is the brewery? “That’s again not an easy answer.” As he continued, it seemed like he was himself trying to recall how to put it in more technical terms. “We have a consumer story that’s sort of different. We can do up to 4 million pints a day on average. But that isn’t the same as you’re asking. I’m not trying to put you off. It’s four brewing streams in the brewhouse, so it’s hard to answer it the way you’re asking it. There’s mills, and then there’s a number of mash vessels and a number of lauter tuns and they all sort of interact together from a process point of view.”

He did get around to providing some fascinating information—really the only non-talking points of the interview. “It’s a high-gravity brewing process. Starts as high gravity and then prepared for different packaging formats for around the world. … You’re talking about 22,000 kg of grain being converted and an original gravity in the region of 1.080. It’s a 6.5 million hectoliter brewery [5.4 million barrels] that with tweaks can go up and down.”

From there I shifted to the beer. I made the big mistake, in asking my tangy Extra Stout question, in identifying it as “lactic” tanginess. I didn’t then and don’t now know what causes it, and I regret suggesting lactic acid. Because, of course, that’s the word that caught his attention. “Lactic tanginess—do you think so? We wouldn’t describe it as a sour note. The roasted barley probably impacts on that. The pH of the beer is probably lower than—as a stout there’s a lower pH. There’s no acidification process.” As when he discussed the way they described production volumes, he lapsed into a sort of meta-analysis. “Anybody describing it as lactic-y or sour-y tends to be picked up by customers these days as a negative. And I wouldn’t be going that route.”

He continued, more vaguely, back in the consumer mode. “We do have a legendary process and there is element of mystery behind it—and you’re not going to get that out of me. The mix of it is personified in the brewing process. It’s not lactate. We don’t use any lactic acid addition to do that. If it’s a sour flavor you’re picking up, that’s what we would describe it as.”

Now, I should say that in the dozens of interviews I’d done with brewers before then (and the dozens of interviews since), I’d never had anyone dodge a question or redirect me. I have had brewers lie, but only quite rarely. You might touch on a subject not open for journalists, but it was pretty clear he wasn’t going to answer any of the questions I was interested in. Since he’d broached high-gravity brewing, I asked if Foreign Extra Stout was high-gravity brewed. He gave an odd murmur and then said, “It wouldn’t be significantly higher.” I was going to ask what that meant, and then he offered this non-clarifier: “The whole idea is to get the best efficiency of the optimization of grain that you purchase out of your brew house. … If we have to increase the grist size to generate a maximum efficiency at a particular time of the year, we will do. The number of streams at the brew house would be minimized due to the optimization.” Even though he had raised the topic of high-gravity brewing, he didn’t want to get into the details.

Murray had another phone call to go to, and I gave him the chance to exit the conversation, but he wanted to engage me a bit more. Re-listening to the interview, it sounds like he thought it was going as weirdly as I did. For the first time, he inquired about the project and asked what it was I needed to know for the book. He followed up with an answer that, given a different context and a few more beers, might have led to some very interesting discussion.

“The uniqueness of the St. James Gate Brewery has always been—it’s always been different from everything else. We have to make beer different from everyone else. It’s an exotic place to work, the roast house is an extraordinary element that we have that nobody else has; the yeast management is totally different from everywhere else.” He continued pointing out differences in general terms. “An amazing journey in the last 10 years of doing things differently compared to what it would have been done for the first 240 years.” He was finally animated in the way brewers get when talking about their facilities, and I would have loved to ask all the obvious follow-ups: In what way do you do things differently? Tell me about that roast house. Can you tell me a little bit about the yeast—where did it come from? How old is it? What’s your management process? What was the brewer like 10 years ago and what did Guinness do to change it?

But there was not time. He added a sort of summary of the info he hoped I would take from the Guinness story as parting advice. “If you’re writing a story on stout, you talk about roasted barley, you talk about Guinness in its unique mystery, you talk about stout yeast, and [you] talk about hop flavor and the impact of what nitrogen will have done to the world of beer.”

I thanked him and added, “Well, one day I’d love to get to see that brewery.” He answered, a bit ruefully, “It’s a tough brewery to get to see these days for a number of reasons.” I have a strong suspicion that the interview didn’t improve the odds I’d be seeing it any time soon.

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Jeff Alworth is the author of the forthcoming book, The Beer Bible (Workman, 2015). Follow him on Twitter or find him at his blog, Beervana.