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Guinness adds Irish twist to American craft brewing

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Baltimore (AFP)

The coronavirus has canceled most St Patrick's Day festivities, but as the luck of the Irish would have it, Americans can still drown their sorrows with a beer produced in the first US Guinness brewery to operate since the 1950s.

The company's Baltimore location, which opened in the summer of 2018 in a failing distillery, is helping cement the brand in a notoriously beer-loving country.

A green, white and orange flag flutters over its beer garden, and a gilded harp hangs above the entrance. U2 plays softly in the background. It's almost possible to believe you're in Ireland but a helpful, east-pointing sign reminds visitors that "Dublin is 3,352 miles away."

More than 60 years after a brief stint near New York, Guinness chose to make its big US comeback in Baltimore, which actually shares a few similarities with the "dirty old town" of Dublin.

"Two industrial cities with a reputation to be a bit rough around the edges," summed up Ryan Wagner, the brewery's "ambassador."

"The USA is probably the most dynamic and exciting beer market in the world right now, and, put simply, we'd like to be closer to the action," Guinness, which is owned by alcohol giant Diageo, says on its website.

In order to adapt its image for Americans, the Irish company decided to position itself in the same niche as the trendy craft breweries popping up all over the United States.

The Baltimore brewery imports the iconic Guinness stout -- black and creamy with a thick, white head -- for serving to patrons, but in-house it produces a variety of more experimental beers: IPAs, blondes, fruity beers and beers aged in bourbon barrels...

"People don't think about Guinness as a brewery, but as a beer," said Wagner. "We want to change people's mind and be legitimate amongst a vibrant but diverse beer scene.

"But we'll never be mistaken with a small brewery."

- Irish heritage -

The Guinness Open Gate Brewery in Baltimore wants to play in the same league as its craft peers, but it's using much finer-tuned weapons.

The parent company invested $90 million in the layout of the new site which covers more than 60 acres (25 hectares) in total. And it recruited several of the best local specialists in order to capitalize on a globally renowned name.

Strategically situated near an international airport and in a major population hub (New York, Philadelphia and Washington are each less than a four-hour drive away), the brewery attracted 400,000 people in its first year of business, surpassing the company's expectations.

Many Americans, particularly on the East Coast, are descended from the Irish immigrants who fled en masse in the 19th century from the poverty and famine ravaging their island, under the yoke of British occupation.

But others, like Alex Ward -- who has no known Irish heritage -- simply like being able to drink a good beer in an environment that is "very different, but in many ways very similar" to the original brewery in Dublin.

"There, it's more of a downtown, European, almost industrial feel," said the 31-year-old, who visited the Dublin brewery.

"Here, you've got the space, you can wander around and relax. And obviously, I can drive to it. Would be a bit of a longer drive to Ireland," he added.

Ward and his girlfriend both opted for beers made in-house instead of the classic stout. Imported directly from Dublin, the stout is the best-selling beer at the Baltimore location, though legend has it that the beer loses its quality the farther it is from the Irish capital.

"It's true of any beer," said Wagner, smiling through his thick beard. When not talking up Guinness, he also works as an announcer for the Baltimore Orioles baseball team.

"I suppose if you're on vacation traveling from the States, sitting in a 900-year-old pub, being served a perfect pint by a guy who's been working there since the place opened, there's banjo music playing and a sheep walks by, your Guinness will taste a little different," he admitted.

"But I'm very proud to say that the pint of Guinness draft we have here in this brewery absolutely lives up to that standard they've set in Dublin."

It would seem the Emerald Isle isn't so far away after all.

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