St Patrick’s Day is the annual celebration of Irish culture and its patron saint Patrick ‘the Apostle of Ireland’. Celebrated globally on-or-around the 17th of March, St Patrick’s Day is synonymous with dry stout, however this is not the only style that the Irish lay claim to.
Irish Red Ale is a sweet, malty beer, brewed at session strength with a vibrant red hue. A prickly carbonation lifts notes of bread and caramel in this light ale, an ale much loved in Ireland and the United States. With regular, sizable exports there is no bigger brand than Smethwick’s Irish Ale.
Brewing has taken place in Ireland since the Bronze Age, with brewers such as Smethwick’s creating malt-forward styles to compensate for a harsh hop-growing climate.
In 1733, Irish brewers were given an ultimatum following a ban on affordable Flemish hops; shoulder the (high) expense of English imports or use innovative grains to bolster their brews instead. Many pursued the latter.
Roasted Barley became a favourite in Irish brewing as it was cheap to make and easy to store. As the grains were roasted intensely (in place of malting), they showcased the added bonus of astonishing colour and flavour.
The most famous Irish style brewed with roasted barley is dry stout. Brewers such as Arthur Guinness used the grain to impart flavours of coffee and chocolate in their beers, stouts that were jet-black in colour with highlights of sunburst red.
This attractive red hue was to be leveraged in lower-strength ales too, ales that were more accessible than strong, dark beers. Mirroring a growing market for session strength Bitter in England, these red ales became a staple for Irish brewers, with a sweet-malt palate and vibrant aesthetics enjoyed by generations to come.
It’s no coincidence that Smethwick’s are a market leader in Irish Red, with a history of brewing that stretches back in to the 1700s. Smethwick’s were established in 1710 in Kilkenny, an Irish town that many brewers call home, brewers including Sullivan’s Ales.
The affairs of Smethwick’s and Sullivan’s were more deeply rooted than beer and, down the line, the brewery directors became neighbours, sharing concerns of politics and philanthropy across their homestead partitions. The lineages of the two families became one when, as the legend goes, Sullivan’s brewery was lost in a horseracing bet to Smethwick’s in 1918. Sullivan’s and Smethwick’s were so entwined that, at the time of the wager, the families had already married into one another.
With a consolidation as smooth as Irish Red itself, Smethwick’s saw the style as a flagship brew, and sort to unleash it on the world.
Having grown export sales significantly (in chief to the United States), Smethwick’s was bought by Diageo (owners of Guinness, among many others) in 1965. By this time Smethwick’s Red Ale was an established Irish brand, capturing the fascinations of an emerging speciality beer market in the United States.
This speciality market had grown, in part, thanks to a celebration of European styles from beer writers such as Michael Jackson. Jackson is heralded as a savour of native styles and, through his musings, many exporters scrambled to get Irish Red Ale stateside.
Not before long the trajectory of Irish Red was accelerated once more, this time by amateur homebrewing, another emerging sector in the states.
Following half a century of prohibition-era restrictions, homebrewing was legalised in the United States in 1978. Ignoring the mass produced lagers that monopolised bars and restaurants, new hobbyist brewers took inspiration from European specialty styles instead.
The provenance of Irish Red struck a chord with American homebrewers, as many shared in the national heritage of beers such as Smethwick’s. As the story goes, these homebrewers graduated to commercial concerns and the American craft beer scene was born, with a rebirth of Irish Red in taprooms and brewpubs alike.
Today, Irish Red is brewed all over the world and no less in its’ homeland of Ireland. With its’ own new-wave of craft breweries, interpretations of Irish Red are lovingly produced and consumed throughout the Emerald Isles.
The heart of Irish beer is alive and beating, with streams of red pumping through its veins and into glasses the world over.
Slainte to Irish Red Ale, have a great St. Patrick’s Day!
Talking of glasses raised, here is a snapshot of three that I found, and how they measure up..
Rascals Brewing Co. (Dublin) – ‘Big Hop Red’ – Although joint-top in terms of ABV (5.0%), this example was by far the lightest in body, with the lifting notes of citrus hops and prickly carbonation making ‘Big Hop Red’ my favourite in the trio. It should be noted that this example is prides itself on an assertive American hop bill, so is likely the most progressive version of the style.
Mourne Mountains Brewery (Warrenpoint, County Down) – ‘Travelling Tales’ – Loads of caramel flavours come through in this Irish Red, just about taking the lead in the incredibly well balanced hop and malt profiles found in this Irish Red. At 5%, ‘Travelling Tales’ is equally as robust in ABV as Rascal Brewing’s iteration, though the big biscuit and caramel notes would trick you into thinking it was heavier. Incredibly enjoyable!
Porterhouse Brew Co. (Dublin) – ‘Red Ale’ – This Irish Red is noticeably deeper in colour than the rest of the trio, a good clue that the beer in this bottle has a strong malty backbone. This example is the lightest in alcohol content at 4.5%, though in a blind tasting I picked this out as the strongest, its’ full mouthfeel and impressive body similar to that of an English ESB. Although I am yet to try many other Irish Red Ales, this example felt the most traditional in form, so perhaps truest to style? I will have to drink more to find out!!