News that Diageo North America, the parent company of Guinness, will lay off around 100 workers and shut down the Maryland plant that manufactures Baltimore Blonde and other beverage brands stunned the local brewing scene. Left in doubt is the future of Baltimore Blonde — the lager with a logo that includes a Maryland flag — that Guinness began brewing in Relay in 2017 and has since become a popular offering everywhere from Camden Yards to local stores. It was originally called Guinness Blonde American Lager before the name was switched to represent Charm City.
Baltimore County officials say they want to keep the brew’s production local, and have reached out to area breweries to see if there’s a way to have them take it over.
The goal is to keep Baltimore Blonde from going the way of Natty Boh, which has long been symbolic of the region despite being manufactured elsewhere since the 1990s. “We’d hate for that to be the situation here,” said Sameer Sidh, deputy administrative officer of economic development and infrastructure for Baltimore County. “We’re exploring all options to keep Baltimore Blonde here. We’re going to turn over every stone that we can to keep Baltimore Blonde in Baltimore County.”
Sidh said that the county has been in talks with both Guinness and Diageo about the possibility of brewing Baltimore Blonde on a contract basis at one of the many other local craft breweries in the area. “I view this as the beginning of a process,” he said.
In an emailed statement, a spokesman for Diageo reiterated the company’s plan to continue to brew the Blonde in Maryland until early June before moving production to “another location that has yet to be determined.”
Could that be Maryland? Diageo wouldn’t commit: “While we are open to exploring potential opportunities that would help keep production of Baltimore Blonde in the area, our decision will be guided by a business case that also ensures alignment with Guinness’ quality standards,” they said. The company is also opening an Open Gate Brewery in Chicago this summer.
The closure of the manufacturing plant comes at a precarious time for the beer industry as more customers are gravitating toward options such as canned cocktails and hard seltzers or abstaining from drinking altogether, said Jim Bauckman, director of communications for the Brewers Association of Maryland, a nonprofit trade association. And pressures on breweries increased during the pandemic when they were shuttered to the public; Maryland has seen three close since 2020, Bauckman said, including Baltimore’s Full Tilt Brewing, Backshore Brewing Co. in Ocean City and Frederick’s Jug Bridge Brewery.
“Each of them closed for different reasons, but we think there may be some overlapping concerns,” he said. “The reality is breweries have not rebounded to 100% pre-pandemic numbers.”
While the Guinness Open Gate tasting room, restaurant and experimental brewing area will remain open, news of the Diageo plant’s shutdown stunned Bauckman and others in the industry, including employees. “The loss of almost 100 jobs is a little bit of a shock,” he said.
One contender to brew the Blonde is Heavy Seas, which is about two miles away from the Relay location. While owner Hugh Sisson said “it’s way too early to have any conjecture on whether or not we would be doing the Baltimore Blonde,” he added, “it’s certainly something we would be interested in.”
It wouldn’t be the first time Heavy Seas produced a beer through a contract. The company also manufactures National Premium, sometimes called the “classy” sibling of Natty Boh. “Natty Preme” went out of business decades ago before being resurrected by a realtor in Easton. Sisson, who was surprised to see Diageo pull the plug on the plant just a few years after it opened the $90 million project to the public, said he would like to see Baltimore Blonde “continue to be made in Baltimore County.”
The Guinness Blonde isn’t a top seller at Lighthouse Canton, which sells a wide variety of local craft brews, but sales tend to pick up in the warmer months, said employee Mark Sevilla. He also anticipated an increase in customer interest in the beer now that its plant is closing. Beer from Full Tilt saw “a huge jump in sales” in the wake of that Baltimore brewery’s closure, Sevilla said.
While some craft brewers initially had reservations about the arrival of a large producer like Guinness, Sisson said that the Irish brand’s arrival ended up being good for the local beer scene: “We have people that come to see us and they’re on their way to Guinness.”