The proverb “In like a lion, out like a lamb” embodies the welcome change of season as winter gives way to spring. As the days lengthen and the landscape turns green, thoughts of beer turn from the heavier cold weather ales to something lighter and fresher.
With St. Patrick’s Day also occurring within the month, the season brings to mind Irish ales. Irish red ale in particular is an easy-drinking style with a subtle maltiness that complements the transition into springtime.
Ireland has a long history of ale brewing, and prior to the 18th century, ale was the term for beer brewed without hops. Sometimes known as gruit, these types of beers were brewed with other available herbs, such as sweet gale, mugwort and yarrow. With the advent of imported English hops, Irish beer styles recognizable to modern drinkers began to take shape.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, English beer had a profound influence on Irish brewing. Porter from London found a ready audience among Irish drinkers, and Dublin brewers adapted the style to local conditions, leading to stout porter (meaning strong porter), which evolved into the dry Irish style stout loved by Guinness drinkers the world over.
Red ales enjoyed a similar evolution as Irish brewers adapted the English bitter to their own tastes. Easy drinking, balanced and sessionable, bitters embrace drinkability and showcase pleasant hop bitterness (though not at levels American craft drinkers would consider truly bitter).
Irish brewers, refining their own interpretations to the style, dialed back on the hops and added roasted barley — the same key ingredient present in dry Irish stouts. Perhaps this was a stylistic nod to those stouts, or perhaps the roasted barley simply had the same effect of countering the alkalinity of the local water.
Regardless of the reason, the resulting beers offered grainy malt flavors, a touch of roasted dryness in the finish and a reddish hue from the roasted barley. A traditional Irish red ale should be easy drinking with a mild hop profile, subtle malt flavors, and a light dry roastiness in the finish.
A variation on the style, typically brewed for export, emphasizes more caramel and sweet character in the malt. And of course, American craft versions are often beefier ales with more alcohol. Don’t confuse American-brewed Irish red ales with their American red ale counterparts, however, as the latter style emphasizes a fuller body and an almost IPA-level of hops.
If you can find them, some classic examples of native Irish red ales include Kilkenny Irish Beer from Guinness, O’Hara’s Irish Red from Carlow Brewing Company, and Smithwick’s Irish Ale, also from Guinness.
Closer to home, Bend’s Bridge 99 Brewery offers an interpretation of a historic recipe in its Bog Trotter Irish Ale. Owner Trever Hawman acquired the recipe from Jim and Brenda Allen, whom he met through his previous career in construction. The recipe belonged to Jim’s grandfather, and Jim remembered his father and uncles brewing the beer when he was a child.
The defining ingredient in the beer is buckwheat honey. Hawman said the Allens imported it from Ireland before it was commonly available in the U.S. and called it their secret ingredient. In adapting the recipe, Hawman left out the roasted malt, and the honey boosts the strength of the ale to a hefty 7.8 percent alcohol by volume.
Though both of these factors push the beer out of the traditional Irish red style, I find Bog Trotter to be mellow despite its strength, with a light fruity and earthy aroma from the use of English Fuggle hops. The honey is present in the flavor and the finish: sweet and floral without being cloying, and overall, it’s easy-drinking and clean.
For a more traditional approach, Porter Brewing Company in Redmond offers its Irish Redmond Ale, a malty medium-strength beer served on cask. The natural cask conditioning gives the ale a smooth and soft mouthfeel, and the beer offers up a touch of roast and mellow gentle hop note. At 6 percent alcohol by volume and 26 IBUs, it’s a slightly strong interpretation.
Pelican Brewing Company of Pacific City brews Sea’N Red as part of its year-round lineup, which I find to be a fairly accurate representation of the style for an American beer. It’s a bright, clear amber-colored ale with a toasted bread crust and toffee aroma and a low, gently herbal hop presence. The flavor is malt driven, featuring a dry roasted nuttiness and prominent grainy bread crust character that finishes lightly dry. With 25 IBUs and 5.4 percent alcohol by volume, it is perhaps a bit strong for the traditional style but has a terrific drinkability.
As we transition from March into April, seek out some of these Irish ales to pair with the warmer weather and emerging greenery.