Stand By Your Can: Guinness Says Nitro IPA Speaks To Brand’s History Of Innovation

The Guinness Storehouse at St. James’s Brewery in downtown Dublin, Ireland, proudly displays a copy of the building’s original rental contract in the atrium floor. Penned in founder Sir Arthur Guinness’ signature scrawl, the yellowed document reminds the 1.5 million yearly visitors of the brand’s rich history. Several stories above, a sleek, modern glass-and-steel viewing deck shifts the story to the business’s future.

Like the building it’s made in, Guinness beer is a brew of the old and new.

Many people associate Guinness foremost with old-fashioned pints of velvety stout or draft, but it is also very much a company with innovation on its mind. Its signature nitrogen widget, developed more than a century ago, is crucial to making Guinness at home taste like Guinness from the tap. Used for nearly 30 years to create the perfect pour of canned stout, the widget recently made its debut in a new product: Guinness Nitro IPA.

Reception to the IPA has been mixed, drawing criticism from some who dismiss it as a gimmick and others who question the very notion of nitrogenating an India pale ale in the first place. Emma Giles, beer brand director at Guinness owner Diageo, says such criticism isn’t surprising given Guinness’ long history and its fans’ passion for the traditional stout. “We’re never going to forget where we came from, but we’re always going to be thinking about what’s next — how do we innovate and how do we challenge what people think a Guinness beer is while still being true to everything we are.”

We chatted with Giles about the signature nitrogen widget that gives Guinness Draught its creamy texture and velvety head and what else the brewery has in the works. Here is a condensed version of our conversation.

Can Science: How important is the nitro design to the marketing of Guinness beer?

Emma Giles: We invented the nitrogenation of beer back in the 1950s, and yes, with humility, I do think we do it best. In 1988 we created the widget as a means to recreate that amazing pub pint at home, by activating nitrogenated beer in a can. In 1991, it won the Queen’s Award For Technical Advancement in the U.K., which is fantastic recognition for such a critical breakthrough.

CS: Many breweries, large institutions as well as microbrews, are adopting can packaging for their beers. In such a competitive market, how does Guinness stand out?

EG: Our widget definitely plays the biggest part there. Once people learn what it does and why it’s in there — and that, despite popular belief, there isn’t a ping-pong ball in their beer — they start to appreciate Guinness a little more.

Our packaging is a way to show our personality and an opportunity to tell our beers’ stories. With our Nitro IPA as an example, we made sure to design the cans and the packaging in a way that was true to the Guinness identity everyone knows, but also lets the uniqueness of The Brewers Project show.

CS: Do you encounter much resistance to product innovation?

EG: It’s no secret that beer drinkers associate the Guinness name most closely with our stout, but that doesn’t hold us back in terms of what else we brew. People are — for the most part — excited to see what we can do. We turned a lot of heads with our Blonde American Lager or Nitro IPA, and yes, some people complained, but we also got a lot of support. Both beers have healthy sales, and that’s really the biggest indication that they have an audience.

CS: Guinness has a wide selection of beers, everything from American lagers to porters and stouts. Yet, something about them is inherently “Guinness.” At the brewing level, what is going on to make sure that the various beers never lose the Guinness identity?

EG: Put simply, because they’re made by Guinness. Guinness brewers work at the very same brewery Arthur Guinness signed a lease on in 1759 to brew beers that have Arthur’s family name on them. That makes them Guinness.

There are a few common themes that will often mark a Guinness beer’s brewing and fermenting process out — for example almost all our beers are fermented with the same proprietary strain of yeast that we have been cultivating for decades — but ultimately the beers we brew are the product of a brewery and a brewing culture 257 years in the making.

It’s a balancing act. We’re never going to forget where we came from, but we’re always going to be thinking about what’s next — how do we innovate and how do we challenge what people think a Guinness beer is while still being true to everything we are. Arthur signed that lease 257 years ago. We’re proud of where we’re at and where we’ve come from. When The Brewers Project was developing our West Indies Porter and Dublin Porter, they literally flipped through the diaries our brewers have kept — some of those entries being more than 200 years old — found an old recipe they loved and put their own spin on it, a 21st century Guinness spin. The whole point is that we want our fans to have a great lineup of Guinness beers to enjoy, but we also want them to take a second and think about all of the years and work that have gone into what they’re drinking.