A Lesson on Guinness: Q&A with Master Brewer Fergal Murray12.20.2011
For a man who’s been at Guinness’s St James Gate brewery since 1983, Fergal Murray’s still got plenty of passion; indeed, the man is brimming full of it, like a perfectly topped-off pint of the creamy dark stuff. Markets Media Lifestyle sat down for a call with the Guinness Master Brewer–yes, the man who looks over the whole brewing process–straight from Dublin…and suffice to say, Mr. Murray and his Irish brogue are about as richly entertaining to converse with as his brews are to drink (he growled twice while talking about his beers). Here, he tells us his story, talks up their latest brew, the Black Lager, and describes, step by step, exactly how the perfect pint is poured.
Markets Media: So tell us. How did you become a Master Brewer? Did you know right away that this was what you wanted to do?
Fergal Murray: Oh, it wasn’t anything as romantic as that! I got a science degree and then a job in 1983 at St. James Gate brewery, and then the romance started, you see. When you arrive at a place that’s got so much history, so much heritage, so much tradition, and such a sensational product, you think, ‘This is great. I love this place.’
The real kicker was, I was a young man back then, so I’d go out to the pubs, and I’d say to my mates, ‘you know what, lads, I make that stuff, what you’re drinking!’ I mean, you couldn’t quite say that with baked beans! So I got a few brownie points with that. But then, the professionalism takes place, and you learn to manage through the process of becoming a brewer, and maybe someday a master brewer, and you have to take on the legacy of what Arthur started, and then becoming the custodian of that myth and magic, which is a phenomenal journey to undertake. So all those skills that have been there for 252 years have been passed down to me and a few other guys, and we’re the ones that continue to make the magic. When we’re long gone, Guinness will still be there making fantastic beers, so hopefully I’ll be passing on my knowledge.
MM: What was the process like for you, taking all that time to learn how to become a brewer and all of the nuances of it?
FM: Well, the first thing is operating in the plant. You enjoy your day job and checking out the plant and all of the protocols and all the correct procedures to make sure the beer is always fantastic and consistent. And the best part, of course, is always the tasting, making sure that ‘My God, that stuff is as good as it always is’. The scientific part is a big element to it, because brewing is a science, and it’s always something that you really have to understand, completely—how it all comes together to make beer.
And the real substance and soul that we get, what makes it so special, is the art and craft that comes when you’re a Master Brewer. You’re creating something that has a craftsmanship element to it and that takes you by the innards and by the soul, and you feel, ‘Oh, my God, I’m personally connected to this now.’ So that’s the difference, you see. The hard work is learning how to make the beer, figuring it all out, taking A and B and putting it all together in the tank and making sure it gets to the right person, but that’s all A to zed sort of stuff, and overshadowing all of that is that this is an extraordinary beer, and it’s going to taste better than it ever has before, and you’ve got to make sure that’s the job.
MM: Have you gotten to a point where you can pick out the various nuances in each batch?
FM: Well, what you’re trying to avoid is any differences! In the tasting session that we do, in the quality assurance test, we make sure that it’s as good as it should always be. Because if something else comes out, it’s “Oh my God, something’s different here”, and all the bells start ringing, and you go, “Why is that different? How did that become different?” And then you start analyzing it, and going into all the specs, and go into it at a different depth. But that’s what you don’t want to do, because that creates work! (laughs) And over the years, as a brewer, when those differences come up, that’s what you cut your teeth on, understanding those things and why they happen and how they can happen, and how you get out of that situation to make sure it doesn’t happen again—that is the craft.
MM: How do you develop new brews as a Master Brewer? What is the process?
FM: Just to point out—we’re a large group of people. There’s an innovation department, if you want to use that phrase. They’re constantly looking at market trends and different ways of doing things from a brewing point of view, different materials, different ingredients. So we’ve got a whole team of people who are constantly searching down new roads. We’ve always got some sort of brew going on, from years and years and years of research. We’ve always taken our brews and taken notes and put them into a database. So we might look at a market like North America, and we really wanted to get to a customer we hadn’t gotten to before, so what we got out of our Pandora’s box is this black lager we had been working on. And what happens is our marketing guys take a look at it, they go “Ohhh, this is smooth, lads! We could have something here!”
MM: How did Guinness come up with the idea of Black Lager?
FM:Well, we thought, If Guinness are going to make a lager, we’re going to offer the drinker a little more something beyond the usual, something distinctive and unique, and that’s what we’ve designed. We consider different brews all the time, but when we did this lager, we wanted to match the expectations of our consumers, who wanted something different. The element of the roasted barley is critical, and that’s the stand-out point, that ingredient we put in, so when you take a drink, you get a refreshing lager with the fantastic element of the dark roasted barley.
MM: How do you get the dark color in the Black Lager, anyway?
FM:We brew with the full lager process, and the dark color is due to the addition of the roasted barley element. So it’s secondary brewing–we re-convert the barley in our roast house here in Dublin, and we use some of that roasted barley essence to add into the lager in that particular moment of wonder, to balance out the flavors that the lager gives you with the roasted barley element, so that gives you flavor and color.
[The Black Lager is] for a different palate, a different type of occasion. I mean, when you’re sitting at home, in front of the TV, watching football, rather than going to the pub and having a few pints, you can have this Black Lager from Guinness, chill it, whip open the crown, and sit back and enjoy the refreshment of a lager at home. And I think the lager meets a lot of people’s requirements—it’s certainly an at-home product. I think it certainly warrants putting a case in the fridge and inviting the lads over at the weekend.
MM: There is this new Black Lager, then there are the other traditional brews. Which one is your personal favorite?
FM: That is like asking which child do I prefer! It’s all about occasion. If I am in an absolutely glorious pub, one of these iconic hero pubs, with a great bartender, I love seeing a glorious pint of Guinness being crafted and poured. And I love seeing it settle and the beauty. I love drinking it with your eyes first—I love that occasion!
MM: Er…drinking with your eyes?
FM: Oh, that’s what you do with a Guinness. Guinness drinkers all over the world want four things: a great pub, a bartender that doesn’t disappoint, and the moment of wonder when he sees the crafted pint being poured—it’s like looking at a gorgeous girl or a beautiful work of art or something, you just know it looks special. And then the reward is when you sink back that beautiful nectar, that sweetness of roasted barley and wonderful hops.
So I love the pint occasion, but I also adore sitting in a comfortable environment, in front of a fire, with an extra stout. The stout’s a little heavier in alcohol, a little bolder, but my god [growls] is that a great beer! It’s sort of the peak of our brewing capability, but it’s just sensational to have. It’s a different social atmosphere, and you want to take it nice and slow, like a wine. You really don’t want to slug it back, you just want to [growls] mmm! There is so much in a Foreign Extra Sout, but it’s glorious. It’s got a little more horsepower. Let’s say you’re used to a little 2-liter car and you want to move up to a 450 horsepower [growls again] a Ferrari, well you’d want to take it easy! Enjoy and savor the experience. Sit back, slow pour, let it effervescent out, get all the wafty flavors coming through it, and take a nice sip. The explosion of flavor in your mouth will just be wonderful.
And take some food with it sometimes—the Extra Stout loves a little cheese snack. if you’re near any seafood, or in fact in Dublin there is often some [Foreign Extra Stout] with some brown bread and mmmph! Oysters and stout, just great.
My other child, Black Lager, let’s say we’re at a party, I might bring some out and say, “Y’know, lads, I am now going to enjoy myself”. There are so many premium lagers out there that just don’t stand up. My other child is a real surprise and is just going to bring a lot of fun for everybody.
MM: So I asked the bartender at my corner pub exactly how a Guinness should be poured, and he said, “With love”. How, would you say, is the perfect pint poured?
FM: What every bartender’s job is to ensure you keep your customers, you build your trade. And as a bartender, your functional job is that you deliver to the customer in the perfect way. So if he’s going to do his job right, the beer that’s going to stand out as a lighthouse in that bar will be how he pours a pint of Guinness. Nobody’s really going to make an issue of what he does with a pint of some other stuff. But a pint of Guinness, people do respect: ‘This is a good bartender’.
MM: Has anyone ever poorly poured a glass in front of you?
FM: (laughs) Oh, they’re learners! They are learning, so they need a break. As long as they take the advice, they’re okay. But I do put added pressure on them, I have to say.
MM: You have a lot of passion and love for your job. What do you love the most about it?
FM: I have the best role in the world…I love seeing the response from drinkers when they see a perfectly poured pint when it’s in front of them, and I see their eyes light up and they go “MY GOD, I didn’t know beer could be so gorgeous.” I’ve made grown men cry, I’ve made girls cry, various reactions! When you see a pint poured perfectly, it can be inspiration.
MASTER BREWER FERGAL MURRAY: HOW TO POUR THE PERFECT PINT
Murray advises, “With a Guinness, there are six things you need to make sure the bartender does, and maybe they can deviate a little, but if you do it with these six steps of mine, you can’t really go wrong.”
1. Take a clean, dry, branded glass with the Guinness logo.
2. Get into position with the glass, hold it an angle of 45 degrees, and aim the spout for the back of the harp logo (logo facing bartender). Don’t let the spout touch the beer or the glass, for sanitary reasons.
3. Without any sudden breaths or movement, just allow the tap to open smoothly, and with tender loving care, keep the glass steady at the angle of 45 degrees, until the liquid hits the bottom of the harp logo as an indicator, and then as the liquid comes to the top of the harp, you slowly straighten the glass!
4. You allow it to pause and settle in. That’s why we do the two part pour—you get to see it come alive in the glass, you get to see it form the head. We do the two part pour because we want to build the strength in there, you want to build a strong foundation, like an architect.
5. The final step is to put the 2-mm dome across the top of it, it’s like that super edge in that vision, because no pint of Guinness is complete without that. It’s as if you were going out on a hot date and you just do that one last thing in front of the mirror, flip the hair to the right, an extra layer of lipstick, it’s that one last thing! We’ve created the strong foundation, the beer has come alive, it’s sitting there, and you take it back, and you put that little extra top off to make sure the dome is there.
6. The bartender always then makes sure the customer realizes they’ve been made the perfect pint. He may look at you, present it, and say “Sir, here you go”, or “Ma’am, whadya think of that”, but there’s always that extra step.
Want to learn more about each Guinness brew, or even visit the St. James Gate brewery in Dublin? Check out Guinness.com…and of course, drink responsibly!