St Patrick's Day in the US conjures images of pints brimming with white foam and dark beer, the word Guinness etched into the glass. Some say not drinking Guinness on March 17 would be a crime, but there's another beer with an even longer tradition in Ireland.
Irish red ale has been around way longer than Guinness; Smithwick started brewing its Irish red 40 years before Guinness opened its doors. In Ireland, stouts and reds share the spotlight. "Pale ale or pilsner is seen as a girl drink or for the morning," is how Gena Engelfried—former Ireland resident, lover of Smithwick's, and my own mother dearest—explained the nation's affinity for stouts and red ales. Those lighter types of beers, she says, "just don't taste like much compared to stout or porter, no nutrition!"
While my mom is not a beer expert, she does have a point. The Irish make and drink malty, sweet beers—in part because of the high English tariffs once placed on hops, but also for the warming flavor and full belly feeling of a stout, porter, or Irish red.
So what is an Irish red? Irish reds get their reddish, amber hue from the roasted grains that are used in the brewing process. They have a caramel-like, malty sweetness and subtle, nearly nonexistent hop flavor with an alcohol content ranging from 4-5.5 percent.
Kell's brewer Garrett McAleese describes the beer as particularly "sessionable," both light and dry, but flavorful with a toffee-like sweetness. In true St Patrick's Day tradition, easy to drink all day.
Purists will be quick to tell you that a beer is not an Irish red unless it is brewed with Irish or Scottish yeasts and a blend of English, caramel, and black malts. I will be quick to say, that's not what I'm thinking about when I drink a beer.
In the Pacific Northwest, however, if it isn't hoppy it may as well not be beer. Alejandro Brown, of Big Al's Brewing in White Center, is a self-proclaimed "malt guy more than a hop guy." He took note of the PNW's IPA-saturated market when opening his brewery eight years ago and, to differentiate their brand from others, made his first brew an Irish red. Eventually, Brown added an IPA, an amber, and a blonde to Big Al's year-round collection, but that caramel, malty, traditional Irish red ale is what initially set the brewery apart.
Even still, ordering an Irish red brewed locally will usually get you the Northwest version of the brew: think triple IPA and a stout have a baby: an ale with an emphasis on Northwest hops and a higher alcohol content. To complicate things more, American red ale is something entirely different—essentially amber, hop-forward, not smooth, and sometimes incredibly sweet.
All notes and technicalities aside, where can you find an Irish red this March 17?
Diamond Knot Brewing—based out of Mukilteo with a brewpub in Mountlake Terrace—brews Slane's Irish Red in the traditional style. This year, the brewery will be introducing it on nitro to give it the creamy darkness of a stout without it actually being one. For the hop hungry, Diamond Knot also has a Rose Knot Red ale and their Industrial red, both a little hoppier and higher ABV than Slane's. diamondknot.com
Triplehorn, in Woodinville, brews a Folkvang Irish Red, using UK hops. triplehornbrewing.com
Boundary Bay in Bellingham is makes an Irish red, only available for a couple months, specifically in support of their St Patrick's Day parade. They also serve a Northwest-inspired dry stout, served on nitro. bbaybrewery.com
Kell's–technically a Portland Brewery, but with a location in Post Alley–has been brewing Irish red since day one and their list now includes an imperial Irish red with a higher ABV. kellsirish.com
Big Al Brewing located in White Center, keeps their Irish red on tap year-round; using Irish ale yeast and producing a beer with a slightly higher ABV, 6 percent. If you find yourself at Sounders Stadium sometime this year, look for Civ's Straight Red, same recipe as Big Al's Irish Red, but brewed in partnership with Gorilla FC, a nonprofit recognizing charitable organizations throughout the Puget Sound area. Not really St Paddy's Day, but the Sounders wear green, right? bigalbrewing.wordpress.com