The building where Chicago’s new Guinness brewery stands is a repurposed rail depot built in 1910. One of the main design elements is a 7,700-pound metal harp that hangs over the main bar.
Designer Karen Herold calls it “the cathedral moment” that visitors will enjoy after making it past the brewing tanks, through the retail portion, and after the baked goods.
“Some people say you have to immediately expose this view,” Herold says. “There’s others — I’m in that camp — where, no, you need to slowly reveal it so people have to work to get that best kind of moment.”
The 15,000-square-foot brewpub officially opens on Thursday, September 28 at 901 W. Kinzie Street in the West Loop. There’s even a 136-seat patio for the weeks left in Chicago’s patio season. The harp took 300 hours to fabricate, and patience is something Guinness knows its fans possess. Fans know it takes time to pour a proper pint of the super stout at the right temperature and in the correct glass. The staff at the Guinness Open Gate Brewery got a crash course in the brand’s history and training in how to make sure their beer is properly dispensed. Guinness’s first American brewpub opened in 2015 in Baltimore.
The attention to detail is a Guinness hallmark and why there’s no crying over spilled foam that Chicago had to wait six months from the projected St. Patrick’s Day 2023 opening date. Guinness leans hard into its branding narratives which includes romanticizing old writers, something Dublin shares with Chicago.
“An important part of what Guinness has become over the last 260-plus years, is the fact that we’re willing to ask people to maybe take a bit of a different journey than they’re expecting,” says Ryan Wagner, Guinness’ head of marketing and national ambassador.
While Wagner acknowledges the allure of Chicago’s many Irish pubs, a pub owned by Guinness needed to offer something experiential. And while Instagram wasn’t around 260 years ago, this new expression needed to have modern comforts. So Herold and her team at Studio K set out to create something bold, welcoming, and familiar. Yes, those round light fixtures are supposed to look like beer bubbles. The space’s color palette matches the beer’s tones. All the lighting is dimmable to tailor the space’s mood.
Owned by Diageo, the multinational that also owns alcohol brands Smithwick’s, Buchanan, Smirnoff, and Captain Morgan, want visitors to know that there’s more to Guinness than just a beer. And though Irish pubs are thankful for Guinness during March (“No other beer can say they own a month,” Wagner says.), Guinness is also about more than Ireland. As the British occupied parts of the world including West Africa and the West Indies, Guinness reps would ship its beer to those colonies. They would eventually set up breweries and make beer for those markets. The result is Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, an entirely different beer. In those countries, that beer is what customers will receive when they ask for a Guinness.
At the Chicago brewpub, customers will be able to sample Foreign Extra Stout in bottles. And although the food menu isn’t gimmicky where Diageo mandates its chefs to use beer in all its dishes, a few dishes — like braised lamb — may use the beer for flavor. Guinness’ famous beef stew will also get a makeover with vegetarian and vegan versions. A Caribbean shrimp fried rice with basmati and a shakshuka pot pie for brunch are other highlights. For those wanting a traditional pub experience, there are burgers, fried fish and chicken sandwiches, and “Chicago caviar” — a dip made with giardiniera. There’s even a crabcake meant as a nod to Baltimore.
Diageo means to create a multi-use space that’s as complex as the beer its famous for — part bakery, cafe, store, brewery, and family-friendly restaurant. A 108-person private room can be split into two for parties. Intelligentsia coffee and Aya Pastries are available in the morning, and there’s plenty of brown bread throughout the day. Wagner says they need to bake constantly if they’re going to have enough to donate their promised 200 loaves a week to the Greater Chicagoland Food Depository.
There’s WiFi so patrons can get work done with a beer — maybe even a lager. There’s 16 taps and they’ll have at least 12 on draft daily, Wagner says. One unique brew is a pineapple coconut stout. There are exclusives only enjoyable at the pub. There are also beer cocktails, but no liquor. Alas, they won’t stock cider for a proper snakebite. There’s no space for canning, but select in-house brewed beers will be available in growlers or crowlers. There’s a chance Guinness would ship beer made in Chicago to Baltimore for packaging and that could make it back to the Midwest, but nothing is guaranteed.
Speaking of boomerangs, Herold marvels at the green leather table in the cafe. She says it’s the second boomerang table in Chicago. There was one at GT Fish & Oyster before it closed this year in River North.
Chicago has one of the largest populations of Irish immigrants in America. Some may wonder if the Guinness will taste the same as it does in Dublin. Wagner hopes so.
“Quality plays a huge role — there’s such a delicate balance between the freshness of the beer, the cleanliness of the lines, the appropriate pressure, the appropriate temperature,” Wagner says. “When all those things are in harmony, a Guinness Draught Stout poured in the U.S. is going to taste every bit as good as a Guinness Draught Stout poured in Ireland and that’s what we’ll do here.”
Guinness Open Gate Brewery, 901 W. Kinzie Street, opening Thursday, September 28.