GUINNESS global master brewer Fergal Murray talks foreign extra

Last week GUINNESS unveiled a new look for its GUINNESS Foreign Extra Stout brand, the new black and metallic gold flourishes adding contemporary flair to a previously staid and more traditional look. First launched in Singapore – bottles in the new look will be rolled out across the island over the next couple of weeks – the updated livery will also make its way to other parts of the world soon.

We grabbed GUINNESS Global Master Brewer Fergal Murray, who was in town for the launch, for a chat about brewing, the craft beer revolution, and the Foreign Extra Stout’s new look.

So… what exactly does a GUINNESS master brewer do?

I’ve worked 30 years for GUINNESS. As a master brewer you learn everything about the trade – you learn how to be a brewer, and hand down the knowledge from previous generations so the myth, the magic and the recipes remain. I’m the custodian of that at the St James Gate brewery.

As a master brewer you learn how to make beer. And you never really stop learning – the “master” bit comes when you fall in love with what you do, when making beer becomes your passion and your soul. Anybody who wants to be a brewer really need to enjoy what they do and let it become their life.

It’s certainly become my life. Even though a lot of what I do today I spend travelling, visiting our various markets, and talking to our various partners and stakeholders about what GUINNESS is and what makes it different and distinctive.

Such as with this visit. Today, with the redress and the new look, it’s an extraordinary new chapter. Especially for Singapore, because in 1869 – that’s 145 years ago – GUINNESS came here first as 红狗 (red-tongued dog). I find it amazing that the local community still calls it what it was, for a brand to be part of the local beer culture.

That’s the reason we made sure the dog stayed on the new label.

GUINNESS girls

In your opinion, is brewing an art or science?

Science is the initial element – you have to get the science part right – and then comes the art, which is really understanding how to make it an experience and how the customer enjoys it.

But the art part also contains the soul and passion. We’ve got to continue that, because 250 years ago our founder Arthur Guinness did that, and put his life into the business and ever since we hold that belief very close to our hearts when we make GUINNESS.

Because everyone who drinks the 10 million glasses or so of GUINNESS everyday around the world, we want them to enjoy a differentiated, unique experience from all the other beers that are available.

Some breweries market their beers based around the ingredients they use, for example, the kind of barley that they use. How about GUINNESS?

Not necessarily – we focus on getting the best quality ingredients that we can. The particular variety of barley can make a difference in the beer sometimes, but not necessarily. What we’re looking for when we are making the beer is conversion – how you convert the raw material into the “goodness” you need to have.

If the barley provides us with a good protein and carbohydrate conversion levels, then we’re fine with that. We don’t talk up the individual variety because every year it can change. Our experience over 250 years is that malt changes according to availability, condition and even the way it’s produced. So our philosophy is the raw material and what you can get from it. Enhance it.

As a brewer you don’t need to overemphasize on the (ingredient) varieties, unless you’re using that as a way to market your product. Young brewers can do that if they want, and sometimes that can resonate well with the consumer. But I think what you really want to do is to get consistent.

Fergal Murray and I

I’m sure we’re all aware that all around the world there’s this huge craft beer revolution happening. A lot of it seem like a backlash versus big, commercial beers like GUINNESS. What are your thoughts on that, and where do you see GUINNESS stand in relation to that movement?

It’s great that beer is seen as an alternative to all the other products, and it’s great that there are all these young men and young women are establishing themselves as brewers. I think that’s fantastic and I endorse everything that they do, because it creates a more vibrant beer market.

And we’re in competition with that, which is great too. But we’ve always been in competition with trends that have gone on, and we still stand out as the leading stout, and as a unique brewing company, in the world. People look up to us in that part of the beer world, and we’re excited to be involved in that and see what people do.

We know we’ve always been in that sort of zone of offering flavour and taste, and of stories and passion. Our customers recognize we’re still doing that, especially for the local community with the 红舌狗 label. We know there’s a solid undergrowth of traditional drinkers here; we also want to invite the new, young craft beer drinker to enjoy something that’s been around for a long time and not feel like it’s only for the older group of drinkers.

As a beer drinker, GUINNESS will always give you an extraordinary experience.

If you had to pick a local Singaporean food favourite to pair with Guinness Foreign Extra, what would it be?

My consistent favourite is fresh, natural produce from the sea – oysters or lobsters or shrimp.

It’s the saltiness. In your tastebuds there are four things you need. GUINNESS offers you sweet, sour and bitter; the only thing you need is the salty element for a full taste experience. And when I’m in Asia, the spicy bit here gives a little kick to enhance it. Chili crab and Guinness Foreign Extra? Yum.

A look at the sleek packaging of the refreshed GUINNESS Foreign Extra Stout livery

The new livery looks like it’s geared towards the younger crowd. Do you think this may alienate the existing, more traditional Guinness Foreign Extra drinkers?

Think of it as a redress – every now and again you need to smarten up a bit, you know? And we do it every now and again, so it’s not the first time. But we see this new livery as a big step in the journey of revitalizing the brand.

I think the traditionalists will look upon it and say, “You know what, I’m quite happy with that journey too.”