Everyone loves to put on a little Irish for Saint Patrick’s Day, but in truth most people aren’t that picky about what they drink with their corned beef and cabbage. Any old swill seems to work fine, especially if it’s dyed green.
More discerning or traditional folks gravitate to the one beer that, through insanely expensive marketing, has taken over St. Pat’s as its own: Guinness. A huge percentage of annual Guinness sales take place in the one week leading up to St. Patrick’s Day. One local bartender expects to go through ten kegs of the roasty black stout on the 17th alone.
That’s all well and good, but American revelers tend to miss other wonderful beers arguably superior to Guinness, yet just as Irish.
Irish beer in New York State pretty much means stouts and red ales. The two styles are vastly different, and each has its fans.
Dry and tea-colored, with slight caramel flavor notes, Red ales are an easy adjustment for the beer novice. They aren’t particularly strong. They don’t overpower the senses. You can drink them all freakin’ day. The best compliment to pay a Red is to say it’s well-balanced between sweet and dry.
Red ales have unfortunately been typified in the American market by the bland, pseudo-Irish Killian’s Red (brewed by Coors, ostensibly using an old Irish recipe). In the local pubs, a far superior alternative is Smithwick’s. It’s light and earthy, with a toasted flavor. A trip to Ireland will show that this is the new beer of choice in the old pubs. When you order, ask for a “Smith-icks.” The “w” is silent.
A bunch of American microbrewers make Irish red s. Find plenty of them bottled at area beer stores. On draft, Rohrbach McDermott’s Irish Ale and Custom Brewcrafters’ Johnny’s Irish Ale are the local contenders.
Red ale, however, is not the beer that for Americans is the essence of Eire. That will always be Irish Stout, typified by Guinness. Brews in this style are very dark, almost black, from the use of heavily roasted barley malt. Contrary to popular opinion, the darkness of the beer has no bearing on its strength (Irish stouts weigh in as slightly weaker than American mass-market lagers).
Because of their color, and the fact that they are carbonated with nitrogen instead of carbon dioxide, Stouts are the most beautiful beers in the world. The sight of a freshly poured pint, with its thick, cream-hued head and settling bubbles cascading in waves down the sides of the glass, is one of the singular pleasures of the beer world.
When you order one, don’t be surprised when the bartender pours your glass halfway, then sets it aside for a couple of minutes before finishing the pour. She’s not being a jerk, the beer is settling to provide the characteristic two-finger head. Guinness sends quality-control people to bars all over the world to train staff how to correctly pour their beer, and you benefit from that expertise.
The nitrogen also lends stout its smooth, silky mouthfeel and easy drinkability. Still, the flavor of an Irish stout is very different from that of any lager. The roasted malt provides a much more earthy taste, often with strong notes of coffee or chocolate. It may take a bit of getting used to, but the pleasure of a pint is worth it.
Guinness may be the most common stout, and has all but claimed itself the official beer of St. Patrick’s Day, but it isn’t too dificult to find other excellent stouts which, unlike the Canadian-produced Guinness, are actually brewed in Ireland.
MacGregor’s features Beamish Stout, brewed in Cork, Ireland, at its Gregory Street location. You can also find Beamish in “Draft Cans” which release nitrogen into the beer when cracked open (give them a minute before sipping in order to avoid a sinus cavity full of foam).
Beamish is sweeter than Guinness, with a more mild, less sour finish. It’s a popular pick among beer geeks who want to seem more knowledgeable and hip than the everyday beer-guzzling rabble.
Also available in area beer stores, but regrettably not so much on draft anymore, is Murphy’s Irish Stout. Like Beamish, Murphy’s is brewed in the port city of Cork, and features a sweeter, richer taste than Guinness, with perhaps more of a metallic tang from the patent malt. Murphy’s also comes in nitrogen-powered draft cans.
On Saint Patrick’s Day, it’s important to keep in mind the spirit of the holiday; the fact that the Irish don’t make a big fuss over it, and that, in the USA, it’s not what you drink, but how much you overindulge. So, at risk of inflaming the tempers of temperance-minded individuals who are inexplicably reading a beer column, We’ll say “Slainte” and raise a glass to this classic verse by The Pogues:
Now the words that he spoke/ Seemed the wisest of philosophies
There’s nothing ever gained/ By a wet thing called a tear
When the world is too dark/ And I need the light inside of me
I’ll walk into a bar/ And drink fifteen pints of beer
Happy Saint Patrick’s day from Bruce and Mark!
Bruce is a certified beer judge and former commercial brewer. Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at http://beercraft.blogspot.com. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org