How badly does Baltimore County want to keep Guinness Baltimore Blonde?

They’re willing to spend half a million dollars.

The future of the ale, the signature offering from the Guinness manufacturing plant in Relay, has been in question since Diageo, the parent company of Guinness, confirmed it will lay off approximately 100 workers when the facility shutters in June. Since then, local brewers such as Heavy Seas have come forward, offering to brew Blonde on a contract basis in order to keep production of the beverage in the region.

Now, officials are upping the ante by promising $500,000 to any existing Baltimore County brewer who can do the job.

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In a letter sent Wednesday to Alden Schacher, Diageo’s vice president of government relations, Baltimore County Executive John Olszewski Jr. wrote that the funds would go toward the “significant infrastructure investments required for any local brewer to meet the brewing and bottling specifications associated with the production of Baltimore Blonde.”

Sameer Sidh, deputy administrative officer of economic development and infrastructure for Baltimore County, said the hope is also to keep jobs in the area.

Olszewski expressed hope in the letter that the beverage giant shares “our interest in preserving local employment opportunities” and in supporting the local craft brewing industry. He expressed interest in a “conversation about how we can support future use of the distribution property to enhance and complement the Guinness Open Gate Brewery,” where a restaurant, taproom and 10-barrel experimental brewery will still remain open. But officials want input on the future use of the plant, which sits on a 62-acre site near Halethorpe, once it ceases making beer.

He asked Diageo that brewers be given until Sept. 1 to submit a proposal and until April of next year to start production.

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When asked this week about Blonde’s future in Baltimore, Diageo communications director Luis Rábago declined to be interviewed but reiterated in an emailed statement that the company plans to continue brewing Blonde at the Relay site until early June. While the company is “open to exploring potential opportunities that would help keep production of Baltimore Blonde in the area,” he stressed that the “decision will be guided by a business case that also ensures alignment with Guinness’ quality standards.”

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The plant, which launched in 2018 as part of a $90 million development, was celebrated as Guinness’ first stateside operation since the 1950s. The plant did not produce Guinness Draught, which is imported from Ireland.

Diageo is closing down a Relay manufacturing plant where Guinness Baltimore Blonde is made. An experimental brewery and tasting room will remain open, however. (Handout)

While The Guardian reported that Diageo saw a 15% rise in profits for the second half of last year, not all beverages under the company’s umbrella are performing well. Overall purchases of Irish import brands, like Guinness Stout and the company’s new nonalcoholic version, are strong in the U.S., but Baltimore Blonde saw a more than 30% drop in revenue this year, said Bump Williams, beer expert and president and CEO of Bump Williams Consulting. Distribution is down more than 30% as well. “That’s because consumers aren’t picking it up off the shelves; consequently, retailers are discontinuing it,” Williams said.

Still, Blonde has performed well at local stores like Pinehurst Wine Shoppe, where the brew is “very popular with our community,” said spirits specialist Ben Kotchick, who added that the perception of Blonde as “a true Baltimore brew” carries “a lot of weight with our customers.” Should it go off the market, Kotchick said, “I personally think it would be a huge loss for the Baltimore community.”

From the perspective of large corporations like Diageo, a robust regional market might not be enough to justify production; it’s scale that matters. “The more I can produce, the less it costs me per barrel to do so,” Williams said. “It’s a balancing act of producing beer that people want and love and being profitable in production.”

Guinness is leaving behind manufacturing in Maryland, but still demonstrating its local ties. A new Preakness Ale will be released Thursday. (SV Images)

Another Guinness Open Gate Brewery is set to open in Chicago this summer, but that property will not include a commercial manufacturing component.

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In the meantime, the experimental brewery in Maryland will continue to crank out limited-release beers for the local market. On Thursday, the company is launching a “Preakness Ale” in partnership with race owners 1/ST. The beverage, a ruby red, hibiscus and orange concoction, will be on tap at a few local restaurants, including Delia Foley’s, Das Bierhalle and Ryleigh’s Oyster, and will be served at Preakness on May 20.

“It is an exciting new way to celebrate the Preakness Stakes,” a spokeswoman said in an email.

christina.tkacik@thebaltimorebanner.com

Christina Tkacik is the food reporter for The Baltimore Banner. A former Baltimore Sun reporter, she has covered the city's dining scene as well as crime and politics. 

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