Tunnel vision – Frank McNally gets a tour of Guinness’s brewery

The Guinness tunnel under James’s Street in Dublin

Having crossed the surface of it countless times, I finally got to walk under James’s Street in Dublin recently, via the famous Guinness tunnel. In some ways, it was like a journey into the past.

My first impression of the tubular walkway was its similarity to the older parts of another Tube, the London underground. And sure enough, there is a connection. The South African-born engineer who built the Guinness tunnel in the 1890s was the same man who had designed London’s first underground electric railway, now part of the Northern Line, a few years before.

He revolutionised tunnel-digging in general during his lifetime. But if the engineering thing hadn't worked out for him, the law of nominative determinism might have led him instead to a career in brewing. His name was James Greathead.

Beer is brewing here 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all year round, including Christmas

My brief tour of Guinness's was in the company of the current master brewer, Steve Gilsenan. And if the trip through the tunnel started in the past, it ended in what looked more like the future, even if it's already here.


Despite knowing better, I had still half-expected to see open-top vats of the kind that, for example, the French travel-writer Anne-Marie de Bovet described on a visit to the brewery in 1891. Peering at the frothy mixture then, she was reminded of the fate of the 15th-century Duke of Clarence, a prisoner in the Tower of London who was said to have been executed by drowning “in a butt of Malmsey”.

The difference here, she claimed, was that if you fell into a vat of Guinness, the carbonic acid fumes would asphyxiate you before you hit the surface. Whenever a vat was emptied, she wrote, “the washers are obliged to wait four and twenty hours before they can enter”.  Otherwise: “one second of it is enough to turn you dizzy, and two to make you insensible.”

But of course the Guinness vats are not open-topped any more. And apart from being full of giant, gleaming steel tanks labelled “lauter tun”, “wort kettle”, “mash conversion vessel”, etc, the new Brew House feels more like the intensive-care unit of a hospital, although its hygiene levels are probably higher.

You could have eaten your dinner off the floor even in the corner where I was allowed stand, and that was behind a thick white line warning “food safety and PPE [personal protective equipment] beyond this point”.

Although there was little sign of it, the beer is brewing here 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all year round, including Christmas. It stopped for 36 hours during the shut-down of Dublin streets for the Easter Rising centenary in 2016. But it takes something of that magnitude to pause the operation. The Rising itself may not have been as disruptive.

The drinking part of the tour, which I also undertook purely for research purposes, focuses too much on cocktails for my liking

Back at James's Street, and at ground level again, last weekend, I also got the tour of Dublin's newest distillery, Roe's. This too is part of the Diageo empire, because it's housed in what used to be the Guinness Power Station, a 1940s architectural classic, constructed from "a million Kingscourt bricks".

In reinventing the building, they’re also reinventing the whiskey. Roe’s was Ireland’s – and probably the world’s – biggest distillery once, at a time when its neighbours, Power and Jameson, completed the “Golden Triangle” of Dublin 8.

The once mighty Irish distilling industry then fell on – yes – “troublous” times. And in Roe’s case, the path to bankruptcy was partly paved by the fortune it donated to the refurbishment of Christchurch Cathedral, having taken the cue from Guinness’s, who had already footed the bill for St Patrick’s.

But Irish whiskey is now booming again, and in name at least, to coin a phrase, the former power station is a case of Roe’s from the dead. The building’s interim function still haunts the place too. Fittings from the power-house remain in place throughout, while the beautiful new art deco bar has a glass wall through which you can see a section of the old structure, empty and unadorned.

The drinking part of the tour, which I also undertook purely for research purposes, focuses too much on cocktails for my liking. I don’t understand why anyone would want to drown good whiskey in fruit juice. But then again, the target market is probably younger than me, and may also have a different accent.

Besides, history suggests that the people at St James’s Gate usually know what they’re doing. The odd exceptions serve only to prove the rule. Hence the lingering fame, 40 years later, of a thing I may or may not have seen at the end of the tunnel: Guinness Light.