Beyond green beer

OK, so the following post relates exclusively to beer, rather than to Michigan or sustainability. But St. Patrick’s Day celebrations are extremely popular throughout our state, and many bar patrons will be downing plastic cups full of green beer. Yet there are other, and I contend better, ways to celebrate with drink! This article originally appeared in Revue magazine.

St. Patrick’s Day and beer. If these two concepts conjure up green brew consumed in mass quantities by revelers wearing funny shamrock-hued bowler hats, then you’ve probably been at a bar on this saint’s day. It’s tradition, right? The day when everyone’s Irish, and we commemorate this fact with much merriment and alcohol consumption.

But there’s an even better way to celebrate beautiful Ireland on St. Patty’s Day. Of course, I’m not suggesting you abandon the time-honored custom of enjoying a few pints with friends. But there certainly are better ways to honor Ireland’s strong brewing legacy than ordering up another plastic cup full of bland, emerald-tinted, mass-produced American beer.

An obvious solution to this predicament is to enjoy a splendid pint of Guinness; no one needs to be told that Ireland’s most eminent export is this much-beloved brand. Yes, history was in the making in 1759 when Arthur Guinness set up a small brewery in Dublin and began producing porter, a popular style imported from London. Yet to avoid a malted barley tax, Guinness employed unmalted roasted barley; he later incorporated substantially more hops. This resulted in a relatively bitter, dry brew; today, this beer also flaunts a seductive creaminess due to the nitrogen utilized in the pour. Enjoy a Guinness and you’ll know why this was the largest brewery in the world at the turn of the 20th century, exporting near and far.

Yet other dark Irish beers are no less worthy of your enjoyment. With roots stretching back to 1856, Murphy’s Irish Stout delivers the roasty, malty, smooth experience that a stout-lover craves. Beamish Irish Stout, originating from the location where the first brew was produced in the 1600s, is deliciously chocolatey. Caffrey’s Irish Ale is mellow and less bitter, and O’hara’s Celtic Stout from Carlow is a great choice if you’re looking for a dry stout without the bitter bite.

Ireland’s robust brewing traditions extend well beyond black pints. Although dark beers dominate today, Ireland historically produced lighter, unhopped ales. Stouts are only one type of ale — beers that ferment on the top at warmer temperatures, resulting in a crisp, satisfying drink. Several Irish offerings fall under the Irish Red Ale category, a lightly-hopped style featuring a gorgeous amber or ruby hue and a mild, slightly sweet flavor. Murphy’s and Beamish both brew a red, and O’hara’s Irish Red is another fine choice, with notes of caramel and brown sugar balanced by a touch of hops.

Lager brewing has existed in Ireland since the 1890s, but this style didn’t really take hold of the Emerald Isle until the 1950s. Bottom-fermenting lagers, which ferment for longer periods at lower temperatures, are mellow and mild, and Harp Irish Lager is a prime example: A bitter onset dissipates quickly to end clean and smooth. And don’t overlook Kinsale Irish Lager, which displays floral notes.

Cream ale, a smooth style you’ll run across within the catalog of Irish beers, is somewhat of a cross between an ale and a lager: top-fermenting ale yeast is used, but it’s conditioned longer at relatively low temperatures. Kilkenny Irish, a cream ale from Guinness, has a hint of bitterness to offset its sweet and toasty flavor, and Wexford Irish Cream Ale is rich and smooth.

In the early 1800s, Ireland boasted more than 100 breweries; sadly, that number dwindled to several dozen by the beginning of last century. However, small craft-breweries are now emerging across Ireland like crocuses from beneath the snow, adding depth and diversity to the Irish brewing scene.

This St. Patrick’s Day, do something different that really celebrates Ireland. Take a trip to you favorite specialty beer store and locate as many Irish-brewed offerings as possible. Encourage your friends to do the same, then get together for a beer-tasting party. You may be surprised at the variety of Irish beers available, and you might just find a new favorite. Take the time to truly taste and enjoy each unique beer, discuss the different flavors, and have a blast. Funny hats are, of course, still allowed.

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