[Editor's note: On February 20, the Maryland Licensed Beverage Association proposed a special license, HB 1391, that would allow for the Guinness brewery to sell 5,000 barrels a year on its premises, compared to the current cap of 500 applied to all other in-state breweries. In response, Maryland brewers are backing legislation, HB 1420, to allow a 4,000-barrel cap for everyone, not just Guinness and Diageo officials support that effort. If passed, the statewide law would go into effect in July.]
The past decade of the Baltimore beer industry has been all about celebrating the little guy. So what does it mean when a billion-dollar Goliath comes into town?
Yesterday, Baltimore County announced that, for the first time in 63 years, Guinness is opening a U.S. brewery, and it will be located just outside of Halethorpe in the tiny village of Relay. The $50 million project, dubbed the Guinness Open Gate Brewery, will be a home for new Guinness beers created for the American market.
"The types of beers Guinness is famous for and the types of beers we're famous for are quite different," said Fred Crudder, marketing director of Heavy Seas, which is less than two miles from the new Guinness site. "If they were coming in and doing what the Maryland breweries are doing, we'd be worried. But they are diversifying the region."
Crudder is also quick to point out that Diageo, Guinness' parent company, has already had its packaging facility at the location for years—a site once home to the historic Calvert Distillery that opened in 1933. The new Guinness brewery, expected to open in the fall of 2017, will feature a mid-sized brewhouse, packaging and warehouse operation, and be home to tours, experimental beer sampling, and a retail store.
"We want to leverage our 250 years of brewing heritage and bring the success and excitement of the Guinness visitor experience in Ireland to Baltimore County," said Tom Day, president of Diageo Beer Company. "A replication of the Open Gate Brewery in Relay will benefit residents and our industry partners, including beer distributors and on- and off-premise retailers, as well as increase tourism for the region."
The company has stated that Relay, which is less that one-square mile around, was selected for its proximity to major East Coast cities and the BWI airport, number of skilled workers, and space to adapt existing buildings. Another probable factor is Baltimore's booming local craft beer scene.
"If you look around the country, you're starting to see a pattern," said Hal Ashman, chairman of the Baltimore County Tourism Council. "You see smaller cities like Asheville with this explosive brewery trend and some of the bigger players, like New Belgium, carefully deciding to come in and be a part of that."
According to Travel Economics, Maryland visitors spent nearly $17 billion on travel expenses in 2015, up 3.5 percent from the previous year—and 60 percent of that was on food and beverage. Capitalizing on the growing interest in the local hospitality industry, brewers say, is a smart move for Guinness.
"They have plenty of money and they could go wherever they wanted," Crudder said. "They wouldn't have come to Baltimore if there wasn't already robust beer tourism. We've seen visitation getting better every season and I know everyone is feeling it. The growth in breweries is meteoric."
Crudder says that smaller breweries shouldn't feel threatened and that the economic impact will have a "gush" rather than trickle effect. "While tourists are in town, they're going to be looking for a second, third, and fourth thing to do," he says. "It won't take much Google searching to find us."
Construction for the new facility is set to start this spring and tourism advocates are excited that attention is being paid to an oft-overlooked region of Baltimore County.
"For many visitors, they get locked into thinking that the city is the only place to go," said Ashman. "But this really puts up on the map. When an organization this size drops $50 million, I assume they look at cities all over the country. It's Baltimore's turn."