A Beer Sommelier's Irish Picks
Greg Engert is the beer director at Birch & Barley restaurant and its upstairs beer-centric bar, Churchkey, in Washington, D.C. Here he recommends his favorite Irish brews, both traditional and off-the-beaten-path, as well as some American craft-brewed versions of Irish styles.
Engert's love for Irish beers began during his year abroad in Dublin, where he studied at Trinity College. "I drank a ton of Guinness," he admits, "but also my fair share of Porterhouse craft beers at their first brewing location in Temple Bar."
Read on for his picks, perfect for St. Patrick's Day reveling or any day of the week.
IRISH DRY STOUT:
TRADITIONAL: GUINNESS STOUT
Long one of the only bastions of flavorful ale available to the craft beer drinker, Guinness still stands as a classic choice for drinkers worldwide. Though exceedingly dark in complexion, the Stout is light on the palate and low in alcohol, making it both sessionable and full of character (due to the inclusion of roasted unmalted barley which provides the residual drying and mild coffee-ish accent). However, Guinness must be fresh and not served too cold; when past its prime or served more than chilled, it loses its aromatic vibrancy and may taste thin on the palate. Though dark, it is light (with less calories than most non-light beers) and thus suffers from idling away. Perhaps it does taste better in Dublin, but not on account of the recipe: The beer is produced and consumed there with a quickness that maintains quality. Too often in the US, the beer languishes in kegs or -- worse -- in draft lines, and this accompanied by a serving temperature that is way too low results in a beer that appears but a shadow of its once pitch-black self.
OFF THE BEATEN PATH: PORTERHOUSE OYSTER STOUT
Ireland's Porterhouse Brewing Company offers the craft beer drinker an alternative to some of the more ubiquitous macro-brands, and has been brewing up craft iterations of classic Irish styles since 1996. They are about to open their sixth location, in New York City, but their beers have already been making a splash stateside for about a year now. Their Oyster Stout is a take on the Irish Dry Stout style made famous by Guinness, but one with an interesting twist: Shucked oysters are added during the brewing process! This does not give the brew an oyster flavor per se, but adds an enriching quality for a firmer body and an accentuated dryness in the finish. Still subtle and effortlessly drinkable, this craft-brewed Stout's recipe attends to one of the finest examples of beer and food pairings. Since a time when oysters were a staple of the commoner's diet, they have been matched with Dry Stouts and for good reason: The dark, peppery dryness of these brews complement by contrast with the bright, briny and sweet flavors of fresh oysters.
OTHER NOTABLE DRY STOUTS:
TRADITIONAL: MURPHY'S IRISH STOUT (IRELAND); BEAMISH IRISH STOUT (IRELAND)
OFF-THE-BEATEN-PATH: STARR HILL DARK STARR STOUT (VIRGINIA); VICTORY DONNYBROOK STOUT (PENNSYLVANIA)
IRISH RED ALE:
Irish Red Ales are really just a variation on the English Bitters that have long been so popular in the British Isles; their distinction lies in that they are far less hoppy. Rather than using Crystal malt -- which gives English Bitters a fuller body and a touch of caramel sweetness -- Irish Red Ales, perhaps in a nod to their more popular countryman (the Irish Dry Stout), utilize a bit of roasted unmalted barley for a hint of cocoa. Irish Red Ales, typified by Smithwick's, have become well known for a number of reasons. They provide the perfect brew for drinkers looking for middle ground, those seeking something neither too light nor too dark. They are indeed amber-hued and rather clean and refreshing, and thus quite approachable. A hint of fruit in the nose from the ale yeast's fermentation adds a layer of inviting complexity as well. Smithwick's no doubt gained traction in the 1960s when Guinness purchased a controlling stake in the brewery; following this, Smithwick's has accompanied the black stuff all over the world.
OFF THE BEATEN PATH: GREAT LAKES CONWAY'S IRISH ALE
Though some doubt the actual existence of the Irish Red Ale as a style, the popularity of such ales as Murphy's Irish Red, Kilkenny, Caffrey's and Smithwick's has proven the viability of these crisp, mildly malty, slightly fruity and semi-dry beers. When Patrick and Daniel Conway, two Americans of Irish descent, opened Great Lakes Brewing Company in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1988, it was most likely inevitable that they would one day pay homage to their heritage with their own version of the style. They had opened Ohio's first microbrewery, and the first brewery in Cleveland since the early 1980s, and proceeded to offer craft-brewed takes on classic brewing styles. Soon they were brewing Conway's Irish Ale for the Springtime, and including a picture of the founders' grandfather on the label: Patrick Conway had been a Cleveland policeman for 25 years and had directed traffic near where the brewery now stands. This Irish Red is more intense across the board than the traditional Irish versions. It is stronger at 6.5% abv than Smithwick's (at 4.5%), and offers a fuller-bodied flavor exemplified by toasty notes, as well as a drier finish and a bit of herbal-floral aromatic from the use of more hops.
MORE NOTABLE RED ALES:
TRADITIONAL: O'HARA'S IRISH RED (IRELAND); MURPHY'S IRISH RED ALE (IRELAND)
OFF THE BEATEN PATH: HARPOON CELTIC ALE (MASSACHUSETTS); MOYLAN'S IRISH-STYLE RED ALE (CALIFORNIA)
IRISH FOREIGN/EXPORT STOUT:
TRADITIONAL: GUINESS FOREIGN EXTRA STOUT
Finally, this stronger take on the classic Guinness arrived in the US in the fall of 2010. Initially brewed in Dublin in 1801, the considerable strength (7.5% abv) and richer flavor -- due to more malt and grain sugar going unfermented -- permitted this brew to travel more deliciously to foreign lands. It was actually originally known as West India Porter. The enhanced antibacterial properties of the ale -- resulting from the higher alcohol content -- kept the beer better, and the fuller flavor masked imperfections that would naturally develop in beer travelling long distances prior to refrigeration and/or pasteurization. Guinness Foreign Extra Stout is silky-smooth and bitter-sweet, with increased intensity of red fruit in the nose, and a gentle boozy closure. It's perfectly warming for the more lion-ish days of March.
OFF THE BEATEN PATH: SCHLAFLY IRISH-STYLE EXTRA STOUT
Guinness Foreign Extra Stout actually made its US debut in 1817, but its importation ceased with the onset of Prohibition in 1919. Though it has made a triumphant return, other American craft brewers have also begun brewing their own renditions to satisfy the thirsts of craft drinkers for this fantastic style. Among the best of the bunch is the Schlafly Irish-Style Extra Stout, brewed by the Saint Louis Brewery. This was the first microbrewery to be established in Saint Louis, in 1991, and they have consistently crafted ingredient-driven riffs on world classic beer styles. The Irish-Style Export Stout is no exception, and is a sort or imperial version of the Dry Stout they have been making for a number of years. Though big in flavor, it is creamy and balanced on the palate, with malty, caramelized sweetness pitched perfectly against the coffee and cocoa notes. True to its American craft beer roots, a noticeable hop character accompanies the roasted finish and draws up an aftertaste that is redolent of pine.
MORE NOTABLE FOREIGN STOUTS:
COOPER'S BEST EXTRA STOUT (AUSTRALIA)
LION STOUT (SRI LANKA)
DRAGON STOUT (JAMAICA)