It’s already that time of year again, when we don our best green-colored apparel, eat a big breakfast, stock the fridge with sports drinks, and head out to the local St. Patrick’s Day parade to start drinking at a ridiculously early hour and show our Irish spirit even though our personal ancestors may or may not necessarily have it. With this time of year comes Irish Red Ale, a beer style that will almost always get less attention than Irish Stout, not only due to being less popular but the fact that depending on the brewery, is only available in the late winter months. Here are five of my favorites that you’ll hopefully be seeing on tap at your local bar – try to track them down, because this is a style where freshness is really key.
History of Irish Red Ale
Unfortunately, little is to be discussed with the history of Irish Red Ale, because, well, there really isn’t much to talk about. It originated in the town of Kilnenny, in 1710, and was pretty similar to an English Pale Ale, the only difference being having a bit of roasted barley added to the grist. This type of malt gave the beer a darker, red color and added a toasty, dry flavor, making it very smooth and highly drinkable. It’s not a style that has a huge following in its native homeland, being more popular here in the US due to the relentless marketing of Killian’s (which is actually an Amber Lager, and a shell of what it used to taste like when I fell in love with it almost 20 years ago). Around that time, red beers were all the rage…Elephant Red, Red Dog, Red Wolf, these were all Amber Lagers and did not fall under the category of what true Irish Red Ale is supposed to taste like.
Characteristics of Irish Red Ale
These beers have a low to moderate malt aroma, with some whiffs of caramel, toast, and toffee. Some diacetyl (butterscotch or buttered popcorn flavor) may be present, and there is very little going on as far as hops, usually just enough to provide some support. Their signature is that amber to reddish copper color that is clean and clear with a minimal off-white head. A solid, slightly sweet caramel malt flavor is the first thing you’ll notice upon your first sip, with some roasted grain and a drying finish. No hop flavor will be evident, except for maybe some hints of English noble hops. Unlike English Pale Ales which may contain some fruity esters, these won’t be present in your Irish Red. Most importantly, this should be a smooth drinking beer for malt fans, with alcohol levels rarely being higher than 6%, so feel free to have more than a few at the bar. The medium mouthfeel also helps in this department, with possibly some more of that diacetyl that may give them a slick mouthfeel.
Irish Red Ale and Food Pairings
Since it’s a rather unobtrusive beer with no assertive characteristics in any particular direction, Irish Red ale goes with just about anything that may be on your grill or going in your oven. Chicken, barbecue, seafood, burgers, or even pizza would be a great pairing, and don’t be afraid to have one with some spicy food – the sweetness in the beer and the clean, drying finish will help to put out the possible fire on your tongue when enjoying Thai, Indian, or Chinese food. A pint with your corned beef and cabbage is grand slam, with the cleansing properties of the beer sitting well with that salty corned beef. Tangy cheeses would be a good call here, and honestly any dessert containing nuts or caramel is a good choice.
Irish Red Ale isn’t necessarily difficult to brew, but it’s not a style with nearly the popularity levels of many others, so quality offerings are sadly a bit scarce. It’s not something in high demand, or an excitement-generating beer, but these are five I’ve had that are worth your time. Again, freshness is key, so be wary of a six-pack sitting on the shelves in your local beer store (or on tap in your favorite bar) in June. When you’ve had it with Guinness at the parade, grab one of these.