Stout science - getting to know Guinness's Fergal Murray

Guinness's Fergal Murray
Most people think that brewers put a product together according to a recipe, and simply churn it out, whereas actually, our background and our daily processes are biological by nature. The yeast is microbiological; it’s live.
Fergal Murray
For over 250 years, Arthur Guinness’s ales have been brewed at St James's Gate Brewery, Dublin. Whether one is referring to the famous stout, its idiosyncratic advertising campaigns or the reference book of world records that bears the company name, Guinness is most certainly an iconic brand. However, Guinness is also interesting from a scientific perspective. The intricate brewing process, the nitrogenous nature of the drink’s head and the fact that its bubbles appear to move downwards before making their way to the top of the glass, have all helped to make Guinness one of the most successful global beer brands.

On the Friday evening of ESOF 2012 in Dublin, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) laid on an event for members of the media covering the conference. Needless to say, we here at ScienceOmega.com were happy to attend. After being treated to a tour of the stout’s history at the Guinness Storehouse we were treated to a taste of ‘the black stuff’ in Arthur’s Bar. Speaking at the event was Guinness Master Brewer Fergal Murray. As we didn’t want to waste an opportunity to speak to the world’s foremost authority on this subject, Katy and I stole 10 minutes of Murray’s time to find out about his role, and to learn more about the science behind the stout…

What is the best thing about your job as Guinness’s Master Brewer?
Well, there are a number of good things about my job. I do love visiting different markets around the world and seeing people enjoy Guinness in different places; the more exotic, the better. It is such a fantastic thing to see how far the beer has travelled and how it is being consumed by different nationalities. I love that. I love watching people experience Guinness in the right way. That being said, I also love doing it back here. You feel that your labour is being rewarded when you see people enjoying the drink at home in Dublin.

Does Guinness have to be produced in Dublin, or is it also brewed elsewhere?
St James’s Gate is the home of Guinness and produces close to 3.5 million pints per day. We also brew Guinness products in other places across the globe. We brew Guinness in over 50 breweries worldwide and this local production ensures that the quality of the brew is at the highest possible standard. You want it to be in the consumers’ hands as soon as possible and for it not to have to travel for long distances. From a scientific and brewing perspective, we have to keep tabs on everybody’s specifications to ensure consistency and quality. The raw materials that are used to produce Guinness products are therefore very important.

Could you tell us about some of the science that is involved in brewing Guinness?
Most people think that brewers put a product together according to a recipe, and simply churn it out, whereas actually, our background and our daily processes are biological by nature. The yeast is microbiological; it’s live. We have to conduct loads of tests to achieve this. We also have to understand mycology and the bacteriology. We have a whole range of knowledge about thermodynamics, energy profiles and things like that. Then, of course, there is the equipment. We have to understand processes such as high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) to ensure that the beer meets the targets that we set for it.

We are also dealing with some new stuff. We now have to consider our carbon footprint and the associated environmental concerns. We are learning about environmental science. Then, we have the swirl to worry about: the cascade and the surge. This might just be a bit of fun, but gas laws and particle physics are important to these processes.

Are you interested in how new technologies influence the brewing process, or are you more concerned with keeping the taste the same?
Oh no. The journey is constantly improving. We don’t want to change the consumer’s anticipation of the product. Guinness Draft, for example, has to taste the same every single time. However, innovation helps us to make things better. It helps us to improve the quality and technologies of the brewing process. We are always looking to improve on this front. Actually, we will be building a new brewery here within the next year and it will contain the latest technology to help to deliver more efficiencies. Innovative ideas are always welcome.

Would you say that Guinness is more interesting – from a scientific perspective – than other alcoholic beverages?
Well, I’d have to say that wouldn’t I? I love the way you’re thinking. We’ve been brewing beer for 253 years. We know exactly how to blend the ingredients, but we are constantly looking to improve the process. Of course, we make stouts so this sets us apart slightly from those who produce lagers. In this respect, roasting the barley is pretty important. Understanding how roasting happens, understanding the Maillard reaction and the amino acid-sugar balance is pretty important because we want consistency. This is one brewing capability that nobody else has. We can claim this as a definite fact.

Our nitrogenation process – the technique that we created to put nitrogen into the beer – is also unique. Then we have things such as draught in bottles, draught in cans, widget technology – these are all areas in which we have been leaders. I suppose that in answer to your question, we like to think that we are up there amongst the greats of the brewing industry, in terms of taking a scientific approach to our product.

Both Katy and I have worked as bartenders before, so we appreciate the intricacies involved in pouring a good pint of Guinness. Why is it that bartenders must take such care over pouring the perfect pint?
Well, the answer is simply that Guinness drinkers want a great Guinness experience, and part of that experience is the ritual: the serve that you get from great bartenders who understand that they must craft the pint. I love seeing a bartender craft my pint. I don’t want them to simply throw it in front of me. I want them to go through the motions of creating. Part of the Six Steps is to allow the pint to settle; to allow it to swirl, cascade and surge. People want to see that iconic look as the nitrogen bubbles settle at the top on that great, thick, creamy head. You need to drink with your eyes first. I think that you get a little bit of extra kudos as a man who drinks Guinness, so you want to see it looking perfect and beautiful before you taste it.

And finally. Are you in favour of a shamrock on top of your pint?
In terms of consumers enjoying their pints? No problem. I wouldn’t advise bartenders always to do this, just in case they do not create the perfect serve. It can be difficult, but look…If a customer wants it then please say yes.

Thank you very much for taking the time to speak to us…

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