Perhaps more than any other holiday, St. Patrick’s Day is associated with beer. Green-tinted lager and inky Irish stout rule the day, accompanied by mounds of corned beef and bushels of cabbage. Though Guinness is nice, there are plenty of other options to create the perfect pairing for that favorite St. Paddy’s Day dish.

I love the stuff, but let’s face it, traditional corned beef and cabbage is very light on flavor. It doesn’t take much for a beer to overwhelm it. You have to look on the lighter side to find a suitable companion. While it may seem counterintuitive, roasty-black Irish stouts are an ideal match.

A common misconception about these beers is that they are heavy and filling. Nothing could be further from the truth. These are drinking beers, built for long sessions at the pub with many pints consumed. Most are under 4 percent alcohol and contain only a few more calories than an American light beer. And the nitrogen-gas pour leaves them smoother, with less carbonation so they won’t fill you up.

What fools people is the intense, almost acrid, roasted-malt flavor. But that’s exactly what makes Irish stout perfect with corned beef. It brings a smoky bitterness that offers a perfect counterpoint to the salty meat and sweet carrots. Its thin, delicate mouthfeel meets the simple steamed veggies on even terms.

So many choices

As an alternative to Guinness, try Murphy’s Irish Stout. It’s a bit sweeter, but still has that dry, roasty bite. I also like North Coast Old Number 38. It stays light, but has chocolate, molasses and licorice notes that add depth.

Scottish ales offer a sweeter approach. Caramel notes absolutely sing with the sweetness of cooked carrots and bring sugary balance to the briny corned beef. Belhaven Scottish Ale is the standard-bearer of the style. It’s smooth and malty with just a kiss of hop bitterness to keep it balanced. The nitrogen widget in the can lightens the body, making it a one-to-one match to the light fare.

For a local option, pick up a growler of Hope & King Scotch Ale from Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery. It’s a bit richer than Belhaven, but still light enough that it won’t overpower the food. Raisin notes and just a touch of chocolate roast provide a little added interest.

Irish red ale is my favorite beer with corned beef and cabbage. It gives you the best of both Scottish ale and stout. Caramel sweetness up front is followed by a gentle roasty bite on the way out. You get both the complementary sweetness and the contrasting bitterness. An overlay of grassy, herbal hops works like seasoning on the otherwise plain-Jane dish.

You can’t go wrong with Porterhouse Red Ale. The real deal from Dublin, it features deliciously subtle caramel flavors with moderate bitterness to balance. This beer’s light body and slightly thin mouthfeel perfectly match the weight of the food. For both flavor and heft, this is my top pairing pick.

Boulevard Irish Ale is fuller and less subtle than the Porterhouse Red. The caramel is sweeter. The roasty bite at the finish is stronger. The mouthfeel is thicker. It’s bigger all around, but not so big that the dish can’t handle it.


Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at