ST. PATRICK’S DAY is upon us, and you’re going to hear a lot of people insist that if you really want to be Irish for a day, you’ve got to drink black-as-ink stout. Either that, or green-dyed beer.
Here’s another color for you to consider on this holy day of beer drinking: red, as in Irish red ale.
Hundreds of years before Arthur Guinness made his famous stout, Ireland was famous for its red ale. Poets rhapsodized about its strength and character. Believers told the tale of Conn of the Hundred Battles who, 2,000 years ago, learned the names of those who would succeed him on the throne from a beautiful, dreamlike maiden who served him ladlefuls of ale as red as blood.
These days, unfortunately, beer freaks often skip past Irish red ale because it’s faded into a style without any distinctive edges.
It is neither hoppy nor particularly malty. It is satisfying, not provocative. The official Beer Judge Certification Program style guidelines offer yawn-inducing descriptors like “moderate caramel flavor,” “light grain flavor,” “medium bitterness” and “easy-drinking.” Another guide unhelpfully describes Irish red ale as “an Irish ale noted for its reddish color.”
“It’s innocuous, not super hoppy or roasty,” said Kevin Reed, director of brewing operations for the Rock Bottom brewpub chain. “It’s comfort beer.”
At its worst, Irish-style red ale, to steal a phrase from a certain madcap celebrity, is as dull as a droopy-eyed, armless child.
Jaime Jurado, director of brewing operations at the Texas-based Gambrinus Co. (Shiner beers), said that more often than not Irish red ale “may well be some brewer’s imaginings of what an Irish beer should be like.”
In an article he wrote for Brewer International magazine, Jurado noted that the style’s guidelines are so undefined that almost any amber-colored ale – from Grolsch Amber Ale to Bass – might qualify as an Irish red.
The difficulty of getting a handle on this variety stems mainly from widely distributed and advertised George Killian’s Irish Red. Ostensibly based on the 19th-century original from Enniscorthy, Ireland, today’s Killian’s is as ordinary as toasted Wonder Bread. No wonder: Killian’s – brewed in Golden, Colo., by Coors – is neither Irish nor ale. (Though, for the record, it is somewhat red.)
The problem is that the so-called authentic originals from Ireland aren’t much better.
Smithwick’s, Murphy’s Irish Red and Caffrey’s Irish Ale all hint at malty goodness and – when served on a nitro tap – offer a creamy body. But after two or three uneventful swallows, you’re ready to nod off. Even O’Hara’s Irish Red, from Ireland’s estimable Carlow Brewing, is a watery snoozer.
Once again, it’s the Americans who’ve taken a tired Old World style and given it new life.
Some of the domestics are classically comfortable: Brian Boru Old Irish Red from Three Floyds Brewing (Indiana) and Great Lakes Conway’s Irish Ale (Cleveland) are outstanding, though hard to find. Easier to locate is Sam Adams Irish Red, perhaps the single-finest style crafted by Boston Beer. Gentle and subtle, with a solid, utterly satisfying body, it is impossible to drink without saying, “Let’s crack open another.”
Meanwhile, other American microbrewers are jolting this subtle style with the hops equivalent of electroshock therapy. Their creation, known as Imperial Red, is super malty and overly hopped. Look for Lagunitas Lucky 13 Mondo Large Red Ale (California), Terrapin Big Hoppy Monster (Georgia) and the new Flying Fish Exit 9 Hoppy Scarlet Ale (Cherry Hill, N.J.).
Bland? Hell no. These are red ales that are fit for Conn of the Hundred Battles . . . or maybe even Charlie Sheen.