Fergal Murray, the brew master for Ireland's famed Guinness, came into Ri Ra in uptown Charlotte at 3 p.m. on Thursday tossing back a Starbucks espresso as dark as one of his company's stouts.
The man admitted he was a wee bit tired: During March, "your Guinness month," he makes repeated trips across the Atlantic to America to talk about the brand. In Charlotte in one day, he was meeting with two corporate clients (Harris Teeter and Delhaize), visiting Ri Ra and the Galway Hooker in Cornelius, and attending a five-course beer lunch at Dandelion Market.
Next week, he'll be in Washington to preside over a Perfect Pint competition with members of Congress (last time he did it during the Bush administration, the Democrats were in power; now it's the Republicans. He admits he's curious whether their beer skills will be different.)
For St. Patrick's Day, he'll be in New York to ring the bell for the New York Stock Exchange and answer the usual questions about green beer and how the Irish celebrate St. Patrick's (they don't -- like Cinco de Mayo, it's really just an American bar event).
After Murray downed some well-earned caffeine, we grabbed a table and a pint of the new Guinness Black (a half-pint for me -- I had a deadline). He jumped right into talking about Guinness Black: Despite the name and the dark color, it's not a stout, it's a lager. It's lighter, with a creamy mouthfeel. It's part of Guinness' push to improve summer sales, which tend to drop off.
Before we moved on to the craft beer movement, I stopped him and insisted he take a minute to drink his beer and rest. He took me up on it gratefully: "You're all right, girl."
OK, on to craft beer: Has the explosion of American microbrews and craft brews been tough on Guinness? They used to have that market almost to themselves here.
"We're not a craft beer, we're a global brand. But you're right, we've been perceived as higher quality. We've been on the pedestal." Still, the change in the American beer market is good for Guinness, he says.
"Craft is brilliant here. It's waking up the beer industry in America." He thinks American consumers always knew there was something better and now they have a chance to get it. And as they read up and get educated about beer, they appreciate Guinness even more.
The only drawback to his trips to American every March is that he's so busy talking about Guinness, he doesn't get to explore American beers. He admires Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Anchor Steam, he says. "Worthy lads, established guys."
His advice for craft brewers: "Focus on trying to improve your quality, don't just throw out new things because they're trendy."
His advice to Americans with St. Patrick's Day coming up (besides skipping that whole green beer thing):
"Drink responsibly, take it easy. Savor the pint in a nice way, please."