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Interview with Guinness Brewmaster Fergal Murray

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Rohit Naimpally

Pol Sci, Econ and Cricket geek who loves a good pint

We've been a little tardy off-late with posting; attribute it to a combination of factors that resulted in the perfect storm. We promise to make amends, starting with this post.

Readers of this blog will know that last Friday, we were given the great opportunity to interview Fergal Murray, brewmaster for a little ol' brewery called Guinness that you may have heard of. Mr. Murray was in town for the weekend St. Patrick's Day celebrations, one of the roughly three trips a year that he makes to Chicago (indeed, he can't remember the last time that he spent St. Patrick's Day in Ireland); needless to say, we were thrilled when his office contacted us about a potential meeting.
Mr. Murray was at Timothy O'Toole's on Fairbanks and Ontario for a promotional event, which involved teaching multiple revelers how to pour the perfect pint of Guinness. Jeff and I made the short trip up at 9 pm and managed to find a half-hour during which we could speak to Mr. Murray by ourselves. As it turns out, Fergal Murray is a veritable Guinness institution in and of himself, having spent 26 years (and counting) with the brewery. When he joined Guinness, back in the early 80s, Mr. Murray was merely looking for a job, not having given brewing any serious thought; as a matter of fact, his first job with Guinness was as a research chemist. However, a couple of years at Guinness convinced him that it was a good organization to work for: thus began the journey towards becoming a brewer at arguably the world's most famous beer label.

Having worked his way up through the organization, earning a Master Brewer degree along the way, Mr. Murray now sits at the apex of the Guinness brand...and with this move up, his role has altered fairly dramatically. As the brewmaster of a mass-marketed beer, he spends a lot of his time with various computerized processes. These processes keep the numerous checks and balances in place, making sure that the brew is measured and analyzed every step of the way, ensuring that each glass of Guinness is going to be just as good as the other.

With a large part of the quality control being automated, it constitutes but one aspect of Mr. Murray's job. He sees his job as being principally on the marketing side, traveling the world to meet market need as it increases. Even as Guinness has become avaiable in more markets around the world (the folks from Guinness owner Diageo tell us that the African beer market is Guinness' single-largest), Mr. Murray is constantly striving to increase the availability of his brew. He describes the process as one where he convinces bars and distributors about the uniqueness of Guinness, showing them that it is not "just another beer". As long-time fans of Guinness, we would have to agree.

Given the craft and micro-brew surge in the United States, we asked Fergal Murray for his thoughts on how a large brewery like Guinness differs from the smaller guys; have the microbreweries become significant competitors? Far from seeing microbreweries as competitors, Mr. Murray sees them as allies in his bid to spread Guinness: with more micro brews available, a greater number of people have been introduced to the complexities of beer as a brew. The sheer diversity of the beer market means that people no longer see beer as being synonymous with tasteless adjunct lagers; this can only help a brewery like Guinness, which is trying to market itself as a quality mass-market brew.

As far as his role is concerned, Mr. Murray points out that he is no longer involved in the actual brewing process, a result of his transformed role within the organization. Where the brewmaster at a smaller brewery would be involved in the physical brewing process as well as marketing his beer, Mr. Murray is principally involved on the marketing side. He admits to missing being on the brewery floor now and then, but appreciates the role he plays in spreading the availability of the brew that he so loves. To his mind, a microbrewery is like a sailboat, buffeted by stormy markets and living closer to the margin, while a large brewery like Guinness is an oil tanker: as the captain of his oil tanker, Mr. Murray's job is to get the ship from point A to point B in as efficient a manner as possible. Tweaking the recipe, or experimenting with exciting new ways to brew the beer are no longer on the table; the folks at Guinness no exactly what they need to brew. Mr. Murray needs to ensure that they do it in the most efficient manner possible. To be sure, this sacrifices some of the excitement and wonderful innovation that goes on at smaller breweries....however, it does ensure that consumers get exactly what they pay for time and time again. Quality control and efficiency form the focus here.

As we neared the end of our interview- the promotional event beckoned- we asked Fergal Murray about how he enjoys his Guinness. In his view, the ideal way to enjoy a Guinness is to slowly go through a couple of pints with some good friends in a favorite pub: not too much noise, no drunken shenanigans...just some quality drinking to aid in good conversation. His answer seemed almost ironic, given the drunken tomfoolery that was taking place all around us, with the entire bar having been transformed into a veritable bro-fest.

We were able to get a sense of what Mr. Murray's job must be like, as he guided numerous people through the art of pouring the perfect pint of Guinness. Of course, the beer must be poured through a nitro-tap in order to get the characteristic creamy head, muted palate and smoothness. Pour the beer as you normally, at an angle, gradually straightening the glass as the beer approaches the wider end, without filling it all the way up. Let the beer sit for a while and then top it, before holding it up to admire the cascading head, as it forms atop the beer. Beautiful.

Following our own attempts at the perfect pint (amply aided by Mr. Murray), Jeff and I gifted him a bottle of Chicago's own Goose Island Bourbon County Stout; it had become clear throughout the interview that Mr. Murray's busy itinerary would not allow him the time to sample any beer in Chicago. When we left the bar, Mr. Murray was finishing up with a long round of photographs and autographs; having already been to Denver, Milwaukee and a couple of other cities on this trip, he was scheduled to leave for New York on Sunday. It was quite the honor to meet him; for our part, we hope that he can have a relaxing post-St. Patrick's Day pint of Guinness...with some good friends...over quality conversation at his favorite pub in Ireland. 

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1 Comment

ChitownGeorge said:

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I'd love to know what he thought of the Bourbon County Stout. Too bad he couldn't try it then and give you his opinion of it.

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