Irish beer has a history as deep and rich as the head on a pint of Guinness. St. Patrick himself probably enjoyed an occasional ale (maybe that’s one of the reasons he returned to Ireland), but Irish beers didn’t achieve their deserved reputation as some of the finest beers in the world until the late eighteenth century. Nothing’s dislodged Irish beer from top-ten lists since.
Here’s a sampling of Ireland’s finest beers. While by no means comprehensive, it’s a good shopping list for a St. Patrick’s Day party, themed beer tasting, or pairing possibilities with Irish foods.
Only leprechauns are more Irish than Guinness and they’re notoriously hard to find. This dark ale is like liquid velvet–thick, luxurious, and very welcome on a cold night. Guyot’s guide to the best Irish beers describes it as having “a hint of chocolate,” but it’s more pronounced than that to anyone used to lagers and pale ales.
Guinness Extra Stout
Once billed as “Extra Superior Porter,” Extra Stout got its current sturdy name around the middle of the nineteenth century. This rich, bitter brew has overtones of coffee, caramel, dark toast, and chocolate, though it’s darker in color than any of those. It’s a classic and deserves its pre-eminent place among beers.
Murphy’s Irish Stout
Guinness doesn’t have a monopoly on great Irish stouts. Murphy’s, produced in County Cork, is as dark as its Dublin cousin above, but has a markedly lighter flavor. Sweeter notes of caramel and milky cocoa complement the rich malt taste of Murphy’s. For those who find other stouts and porters too aggressive, Murphy’s is a good option.
O’Hara’s Celtic Stout
Relatively tiny Carlow Brewing Company makes this award-winning stout. It may be harder to find than the two big breweries’ ales, but O’Hara’s is worth the search. It has virtually no bitterness or dry-toast overtones, just a big, smooth malty taste that keeps its character from the first sip to the bottom of the glass.
Curim Gold Celtic Wheat Beer
Stout’s not the only great Irish beer, and Curim Gold is proof. Another product from Carlow, Curim Gold takes its name from the older word coirm, which was an ancient sort of malt liquor. Pale, light, and only mildly hoppy, its unassuming first note is slightly citrusy, then broadens into a grassy character that makes it perfect to pair with some decidedly un-Irish hot wings.
Smithwick’s Red Ale
If there’s another type of beer for which Ireland is famous, it’s red ales. Smithwick’s is yet another beer from the Guinness breweries; it may be monotonous to see that name again, but there’s no denying that they brew a great beer. Smithwick’s is amber-colored with a slightly sweet fresh-baked-bread aroma. Roasted malty notes predominate, but underneath them, there’s the surprising taste of spiced apples. This goes wonderfully with a rich Irish stew.
O’Hara’s Irish Red
Paler than Smithwick’s and with a sharper taste, O’Hara’s Irish Red has an earthy undertone that makes it a more complex drink. The taste contains hints of raisins, berries, and walnuts. While it’s tough to say exactly what other flavors are in there, the taste invites sampling and re-sampling until the glass is gone. Carlow may not have the renown that Guinness and Murphy’s do, but they do excellent work.