Guinness Open Gate Brewery transcends the traditional Irish pub

The capacious new Guinness brewery aims to nudge drinkers beyond the brand’s famous stout.

Maggie Hennessy
Written by
Maggie Hennessy
Guinness open gate brewery dining room
Photograph: Kendall McCaugherty

If you take a seat in the sprawling Guinness Open Gate Brewery in the West Loop, beneath the formidable, 7,700-pound metal harp sculpture that hangs over the main bar, and order a pint of Guinness, the bartender will promptly ask, “Which one?”

You’ll find a dozen taps here, pouring a rotating selection of beers ranging from a sweet, American cream ale brewed with creamed corn to a dry kölsch-style ale, a tropical fruit-scented pale ale and a dry-hopped Italian pilsner. Of course, if you specify Guinness Draught Stout, the storied ritual will commence. The bartender takes up the tulip-shaped pint and turns it in her hand to check for cleanliness. She tilts the glass at 45 degrees beneath the tap, into which she cascades the liquid, at first a creamy light brown, until it’s three-quarters full. She sets it down, then returns some 120 seconds later to top it up and slide it across the bar—the beer now a ruby-tinted black thickly capped with cream-colored head. 

You go in for that first sip, velvety textured, toasty and malty sweet with a coffee-esque backbone and bitter edge: “Ahhh! Tastes just like it does at the St. James’s Gate Brewery in Dublin!”

A person pouring a pint of Guinness
Photograph: Momoko Fritz

You’re right, in the sense that the stout synonymous with the Diageo-owned brand is indeed brewed in Dublin, not here. In fact, a pint of the black at Open Gate doesn’t differ much from the excellent Guinness Draught Stout meticulously poured at Mrs. Murphy & Sons in North Center or Lady Gregory’s in Andersonville. 

“If you’re talking about the Open Gate Brewery concept, if you put it into one sentence, I think it’s convincing people that Guinness is a brewery, not a beer,” says Guinness’s head of marketing and national brand ambassador Ryan Wagner. “Because I’m guilty of it. I walk into a bar, they say, ‘What can I get for you?’ I say, ‘I’ll have a Guinness.’” 

The 15,000-square-foot brewery debuted in a repurposed rail depot in Fulton Market on September 28, 264 years after Guinness was born and some 207 after it started shipping beer to the U.S. (Guinness beer didn’t arrive in Chicago until 1910) The West Loop location is one of just three Guinness breweries worldwide—the other two being Baltimore and Dublin—that patrons can walk into and grab a beer and a bite to eat. But it’s the 50th Guinness brewery in the world; the beer traveled with British colonialism, and has long since woven into the fabric of daily life in countries throughout the African continent, Southeast Asia and the Caribbean. The U.S. ranks fourth globally in Guinness sales behind the United Kingdom, Nigeria and Ireland; Ghana and Cameroon occupy fifth and sixth, respectively. 

If you order a Guinness in Ghana or Malaysia, you’ll likely get an ice-cold, carbonated bottle of Foreign Extra Stout, which packs a punch at 7.5% alcohol (you can order it at the Fulton Market brewery, too). In Jamaica, Foreign Extra Stout gets mixed into Guinness Milk Punch with condensed milk, nutmeg, cinnamon and vanilla.

And while Guinness Draught Stout effectively owns the stout category in the U.S., opening breweries stateside affords the opportunity for the brand to stretch itself in a market known for boundless creativity in beer.

“We’re at a point where there are 10,000 breweries in the U.S.,” Wagner says. “The U.S. is the most exciting, diverse, eclectic, unique beer culture in the world. So for Guinness it was a chance not necessarily to give Guinness fans and people who sort of casually know Guinness the thing they’ve always known from Guinness, but now we’ve entered a time when it’s OK to come and give them 12 taps of things they’ve never heard of.”

This is a tall order in the City of Big Shoulders, whose beer culture stands on the proverbial shoulders of craft brewers turned giants, like Half Acre Beer, Revolution Brewing and Goose Island Brewing Co. But so far Guinness brewers Megan Schwarz and Nate Morton are feeling the love for two early non-Draught Stout best sellers: Kinzie Street Pale Ale and Corn Maize Cream Ale. The former is a classic American pale ale using modern American hops, for something assertively bitter with tropical fruit notes upfront. Corn Maize is a modern take on a historic, distinctly American beer style; it gets its creamy texture not from nitrogenation, but rather creamed corn. 

“In order to use corn in brewing, you have to gelatinize it,” Wagner says. “So it’s bringing that kind of historic style; people see it and try it and they’re like, ‘That’s not what I was expecting.’ But it’s crisp and fruity and drinkable and all the things that you love when you go out and sit at a taproom.”

Chef de cuisine Taylor Bischof’s food menu mirrors this spirit, in that patrons will find the usual suspects of Guinness beef stew with fall-apart Slagel Farm beef, parsnips and mashed potatoes; an Irish breakfast fry-up with eggs, bacon, baked beans and blistered tomato; and a double smash burger with onion jam and Tillamook cheddar. But they’ll also find Nigerian-style chicken suya skewers with cooling dill yogurt; confited duck udon with onion and bok choy in a glossy, tangy-sweet sauce; and shareable, cheesy crab and corn dip with deep-fried Ritz crackers (as genius as it sounds), in a joint nod to Chicago and Baltimore. 

A burger and fries
Photograph: Brad Danner Photo

“I love an Irish pub; we didn't want to be one,“ Wagner says. “It would have been very easy and frankly a little lazy of us to just throw fish and chips and corned beef and cabbage and beef stew on the menu and say, here it is. We wanted to make sure that global sense was represented, but also wanted to make sure Chicagoans saw themselves represented.” 

Each choice serves the broader purpose of stoking people’s curiosity beyond the iconic stout, because, at the end of the day, Chicagoans will decide whether it’s time for a new chapter in Guinness’s 264-year-old book—on their way home from work Monday through Thursday, or deciding where to have brunch or where to watch the Bulls or Blackhawks game. 

“We just wanna be a small part of what makes this, in my humble opinion, the best beer city in the U.S.,” Wagner says. “There’s a lot to build on and there's an incredible amount of expectation. Because if you don't like our beer, Cruz Blanca is 500 yards from where we’re sitting here now.”

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