It is almost peak time for that reddish-amber (sometimes brown) brew that is anxiously awaited each year: the Irish red ale. Of course, in many cases this style of Irish origin is available year round, for example with Smithwicks and some other red ales, but for many U.S. craft breweries it is a seasonal offering.
While you won’t hear much talk about corned beef, green beer or Irish red ales in Ireland, come mid-March here it is a different story. Once you move past all the “appetizing” green liquid this weekend, you will find plenty of beer of a more palatable color, one showcasing roasted malt, light caramel or toffee sweetness, and a dry finish with light bitterness.
According to beer writer Mirella Amato, this red beer has been brewed in Ireland for many years, but it was Coors that popularized the name “Irish red ale” in the ’90s after purchasing the rights to George Killian’s Irish Red from Pelforth Brewery in France (originally brewed by the Killian family’s Lett’s Brewery in County Wexford, Ireland as “Enniscorthy Ruby Ale”). With a marketing emphasis on the brew’s Irish heritage and distinct color, Coors quickly transformed Killian’s ale (actually a lager) into one of the top grossing specialty brands in the U.S.
As mentioned, there are a few reds on the market these days, seasonally or throughout the year. Many of these beers are lackluster, and fail to get on most beer aficionados radar, but there are a handful that really elevate the style. The Alchemist, Cigar City, and Three Floyd breweries all offer exceptional iterations if you should come across them. And, if hop-forward beers aren’t your thing — be they bitter and piney, or tropical fruity — the Irish red is a beer for just about any taste.
For a clean, crisp version that shouldn’t be too difficult to find, this year’s Irish red from Saranac is a tasty one, and seems to be an even tighter brew than previous incarnations. Again, this is a no-frills style that uses crystal and caramel malts with a subtle hop approach for a mild, but delicious malt-forward beer with notes of toasted caramel and toffee. At 4.5 percent ABV this makes for a much welcomed mellow brew. The Irish red ale is not a complicated beer, but sometimes clean, sessionable, simplicity without the clutter is as refreshing as it gets.
This week’s recommendation: Saranac “Irish Red Ale,” a garnet-colored, smooth ale with light roasted malt sweetness. 4.5 percent ABV. Utica, NY.
— Colin Hubbell is co-owner of the Green Onion Pub and The Beer Hub in South Utica, New York.