January 22, 2019
Manufacturing insights

Guinness brewer reborn in Wachusett's honey blonde ale

Photo | Zachary Comeau
Fergal Murray and Wachusett Brewing Co. President Christian McMahan enjoy a glass of Fergal's Honey Blonde.

Former Guinness brewmaster turned industry consultant Fergal Murray is back in Massachusetts to work with the 25-year brewing veterans at Wachusett Brewing Co. in Westminster. Along with the Irish stout master, the brewery has released Fergal's Honey Blonde. It's the second year of a collaboration between Murray and the brewery. Last year, the relationship produced a New England-style stout called the Fergal Project. Wachusett Brewing Co. President Christian McMahan and Murray sat down with WBJ to talk about the latest project.

How cool is it that a local Central Massachusetts brewer can work with a name that's almost synonymous with the Guinness brand?

Christian: For us, it's the coolest. Fergal is one of the greatest ambassadors of beer in the world. For him to choose us as a partner and to even come back is amazing. Someone like Fergal has so much passion about beer. It's an honor for us to be recognized by him as a brewery that he's proud to associate himself with.

Fergal: It's super cool from my point of view. These guys do an amazing job with the essence of brewing and the understanding of it. That inspires me. When you come here, the beer conversations are just amazing.

What's it like to work in the craft industry after years of brewing Guinness?

Fergal: At Guinness, you're very rarely allowed to tweak or change any recipes. When I was released from that world and exposed to the craft world, the brain sauce started operating and I began thinking, "How can I make beers like this?" I'm loving it. I'm reborn, almost, to release all of that knowledge I had.

No. 2 is a delightful batch. It's definitely brilliant.

Last year's Fergal brew was a stout. Why a blonde ale this time around?

Fergal: The stout was normal. That had to be done. We'll do it again and revisit that. This time was just to come out with something a little more edgy and complex. The thought came to use some local honey and local malt from Massachusetts. We used the honey base to create an absolutely amazing complex flavor.

Christian: When Fergal came last year, he just came from judging a beer competition in Brazil, and his mind was exploding with ideas. I said, "I need a stout this time, but the next year is all yours." When you brew the same beer for 20 years there's so many other things you want to do that you're capable of doing. It's nice that Wachusett is kind of his vehicle to release that knowledge.

What's the beer scene like in Brazil?

Fergal: The marketplace there is about being really differential. An IPA isn't an ordinary IPA. There's flair. They're very diverse in their product ranges. It's a very big market. My mind was exploding with ideas after that when I came to Wachusett.

Did that enthusiasm carry over to this year's collaboration?

Fergal: Last year's enthusiasm came out in this, but this still had to be perfect. When you get in the brewery, you have to remind yourself to get the fundamentals correct and use the right ingredients, processes and procedures to get a product as good as it is here.

That's my first tick in the box: Get all of the best resources and then you'll know the liquid will fulfill the destiny of being perfect.

How does this project fit into what Wachusett is becoming as one of the largest craft breweries in the state?

Christian: We're known for Wachusett Blueberry, our sports beers and having a fun, cheeky attitude. Over the last two years with the Wally platform and other creative things we're doing, we're making all of these beers for the wider audience. We've done a lot more unique beers and Fergal has been an extension of that.

Fergal: The judgment will be as people get a chance to enjoy the liquids and recognize the diversity and quality of the product. That will generate value across the whole craft industry and the local industry – certainly for Wachusett.

What about Wachusett made you want to keep working with them?

Fergal: When I walked into the brewery last year and met the team, the connection was just amazing. The folks here are just so welcoming, so knowledgeable and so pleasant to be with. That sold it for me.

How do you guys feel about a Black & Blue, which people like to make with Guinness and Wachusett Blueberry?

Christian: Customers can do whatever makes them happy.

Fergal: Let them try and let them figure out why they would want to do something like that.

What's the difference between the craft beer markets of Europe and the U.S.?

Fergal: It's happening a lot in Europe, and we're now looking at better quality and better experiences, but people are recognizing that not everything that comes out of breweries will be as good as it should be.

From that, the cream will rise.

Christian: The U.S. has been at the forefront of it. The first wave was in the mid '90s when a lot of breweries were rushing the market and not all beers are good, and it collapsed a little bit. Wave two is where a lot more breweries know what they're doing. Now it's gotten a lot tougher

2018 was another strong year of growth for the Wachusett brand, and that's not the norm right now. A lot of the growth is coming from the new guys. At the end of the day, you can have some great names and good packaging, but it's all about what's in the bottle.

This interview was conducted and edited for length and clarity by WBJ Staff Writer Zachary Comeau.

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