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Celebrating 25 years of house-brewed imbibery

The sign out front reads "Feasting, Imbibery & Debauchery." Noticeably missing from the air, though, is the familiar scent of steaks grilling inside the famous restaurant on Gregory Street.

It's 8 a.m. at McGuire's Irish Pub, and a very different perfume marks the presence of something they make there; something just as vital to their identity as the food. It's the piney scent of Columbus hops wafting out of a batch of their Irish Red Ale.

Tom Webster is checking on the beer. His day started at 5:30 a.m., and he shows no sign of being weary. And why should he? Who has a better job in this town? He's part of a great — albeit largely unseen — machine that brings joy to locals and tourists alike.

Speaking of the unseen, much later on in the day, he pauses in the conversation and asks if I'd like a beer before taking me into the tile-and-steel rabbit warren that is the heart of the operation. McGuire's is such a busy establishment that the service staff simply can't occupy precious bar space while waiting upon their beverages and getting in the way of the clientele. There is a kitchen bar where they pick up their customers' drinks.

We return to a table adjacent to the brewing space and we really get to talking about the past 25 years of beer-making history that comes from this storied Pensacola institution. Strange, being here amidst the now-quiet tables and chairs, the historical memorabilia, the thousands of autographed dollars tacked to the walls and ceiling fluttering in the air conditioning. The experiences and conversations from guests recent and long-gone hang in the air like benevolent ghosts. The moose hangs lonesome on his perch, no one around to kiss him.

Tom tells me about the origins of McGuire's brewing: How the equipment came from the long-defunct Bartel's Winery that used to exist right here in Pensacola on I Street, the rest built by Mac McGee; how the original strain of house yeast was developed by Rush Cummings, formerly of Abita Brewing, and Carl Strauss, the former vice president and brew master of no less than Pabst.

One begins to get the feeling of something older, more storied. Timeless, like it's always been here. For McGuire Martin, it was a trip to the land of his ancestors.

In a time when brew pubs and microbreweries were pretty much nonexistent in Florida, the Martins traveled to Ireland and Great Britain. "They seemed to have a lot of pubs with breweries," Martin explains. "(We) decided to try this ourselves. Why? It was a twist of fate that at the same time we wanted to open the brewery in our restaurant, the Florida Legislature had just passed a bill allowing brewing.

"We bought a home brewing kit and brewed some batches on our own … Of course, they were not good at all!"

It was at this time Martin decided to search for a person who could fulfill his vision of a complete Irish food and beverage experience, and found Steve Freed. Freed developed most of the now-famous McGuire's beers and handled the brewing schedule until deciding to retire in 2006.

Enter Mike Helf, a home brewer and former employee of Mad Anthony Brewery in Ft. Wayne, Ind. He brought a bit of modernity to the McGuire's menu, introducing occasional tinkerings like Coffee Porter, among many other seasonal selections.

Webster joined Helf two years ago. He runs me through some of the stats of their production, like the running count on total number of batches brewed (3,609 at the time of the interview) and where the used grain goes (a Molino farmer collects it as feed for his cows; turns out they prefer malt used to make dark beer).

I ask him what it means to be a brewer for a company like McGuire's.

"Oh, it's awesome," he said. "I've done large-scale commercial production (at the now-closed Mishawaka Brewing Co.) and I love it here. We're very small and hands-on. We get to watch our beer go from grain to glass in two weeks. We make it here, it goes right over there and in between we get to watch the customers drinking and enjoying our work."

In turn, the guests can also glance over towards the southwest corner of the building and watch their beverages being made. Not just beer, either; they also make what Webster calls "an insane" amount of root beer.

Would McGuire's be diminished, less special, had they never decided to start making their own beer 25 years ago? Quite possibly. McGuire Martin tells me that "…having the brewery is just one of the puzzle pieces that makes (our restaurant) what it is today."

When asked if the place is better defined by the individual pieces or the sum of its parts, he sides with the latter, implying that to take away one of those pieces would lessen the overall experience.

What will the next 25 years of McGuire's brewing bring us? Probably not much in the way of change. The brewers are still using a 100-year-old filter press to strain microscopic impurities out of the beer. Change isn't something often on their radar screen. Consistency is a brewer's ally. McGuire's hasn't lost a batch of beer — to infection or accident or anything — in well over two years.

If it ain't broke, right? No need to mess with their own success — or as Tom Webster put it, "There's just something about an honest beer."

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