Brooks on Beer: Irish beer

Written by Jay R. Brooks for the Bay Area News Group and www.mercurynews.com

On St. Patrick’s Day, everyone claims to be Irish, at least for the day, and most people switch to Guinness, no matter what their favorite beer might be the other 364 days of the year. Irish-style stout is a great choice, whether brewed in Ireland, the United States or Canada, where Guinness is brewed for the U.S. market.

What most people don’t realize, though, is that Guinness has at least 11 recipes worldwide. In the United States, whether it’s draft, bottle or widget, Guinness can represent not just different packaging but different recipes, too.

The other Irish stouts you’re likely to encounter are Beamish or Murphy’s, both owned by Heineken. My money’s still on the little guy, an Irish craft brewer — Carlow Brewing — whose O’Hara’s Celtic Stout is the one to find (although it’s not an easy one to locate).


If you want to stick to local fare, Moylan’s Dragoon’s Dry Irish Stout is superb, as is sister brewery Marin’s San Quentin’s Breakout Stout and North Coast’s Old No. 38 Stout. Other worthwhile local stouts include Bear Republic’s Black Bear Stout and Iron Springs’ Sless’ Stimulating Stout.

Irish dry stout may have been Ireland’s national beverage for centuries, but today, stouts such as Guinness, Murphy’s and Beamish account for only a third of total beer sales in that country. For a number of years, lager beer has reigned supreme on the Emerald Isle, with lager sales accounting for more than 60 percent. Other ales account for the remaining 5 percent.

So what else is on tap if you want to be Irish for the day, but don’t feel like a stout?

Turns out the best-selling lager in Ireland is not Irish, but Dutch. Heineken is Ireland’s most popular beer, and the brewing behemoth owns several breweries there. Carlsberg is second. But if you want an Irish lager, Harp Lager is the most popular. It’s also owned by Guinness, but is brewed outside Dublin near the Cooley Mountains in Dundalk. For the U.S. market, it’s brewed in Canada, just like Guinness. Harp is a typical pale lager, but it’s a style that few craft breweries emulate.

Irish ales, on the other hand, may represent only a small fraction of Ireland’s beer market, but they feature a more flavorful style, and they may be your best bet to stay Irish for St. Patrick’s Day without drinking a stout. Also know as Irish red ale, Smithwick’s Irish Ale — another Guinness brand — is the best-selling import here. You can also find Murphy’s Red; both are available in six-packs.

Irish reds are similar to a standard amber ale: A malty ale that is slightly sweet with low hop bitterness.

Big Bear Black Stout ( contributed )
The red moniker comes from a small amount of roasted barley, added mostly for color. Better examples will include a hint of caramel or toffee notes. The Carlow Brewery also makes O’Hara’s Irish Red Ale, although it’s even harder to find than the stout.

On this side of the pond, Samuel Adams also makes an Irish Red that’s available year-round as part of their Brewmaster’s Collection. And there are plenty of Bay Area Irish reds, including Blue Frog Red Ale, Marin St. Brendan’s Irish Red Ale and Moylan’s Danny’s Irish Red Ale. A few more from down south include Green Flash Hop Head Red Ale, Karl Strauss Trolley Red Ale and Port Brewing’s Shark Attack.

Bottom line: If you’re celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, don’t limit yourself to Guinness or another Irish stout. Get your Irish on by trying some other styles, too. Just make sure you avoid the green beer. Trust me on that one.