St. Patrick’s Day is soon upon us. Thousands will take to the streets in the annual ritual of parades, parties and the wearing of the green.
A most unfortunate tradition of the day is the drinking of the green — green-tinted light lager. It’s a sight to make a beer fan weep.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. There are plenty of other beer options that are more flavorful and perhaps even more traditional. Many of them are light, low-alcohol and have less stomach-filling carbonation than lagers, so you can still drink the day away.
The obvious starting place is Irish stouts.
The proverbial elephant in St. Paddy’s living room is, of course, Guinness Draught. A properly poured pint of Guinness Draft simply screams St. Patrick’s Day with its mesmerizing cascading bubbles and flawlessly smooth cap of creamy, off-white foam rising just above the rim of the glass.
Appearance aside, it’s also quite tasty. A hint of malty sweetness at the start is quickly supplanted by the intense bitterness and almost burnt flavors of roasted barley. Notes of dark-roasted coffee beans and hints of cocoa give it character. The smooth, nitrogen-carbonated mouthfeel allows it to go down easy.
There is a popular misconception about Guinness draft that it is thick and filling. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is a light-bodied beer built for long sessions of drinking. It clocks in at just about 4% alcohol and the calorie count is similar to an American light lager.
Many people don’t realize that there are three types of Guinness stout readily available, each one a completely different beer. To step up a notch from Guinness Draught, look for Guinness Extra Stout. This is the bottled Guinness with the yellow label and it also comes in imperial pint cans. At 5.6% alcohol, Extra Stout is a touch stronger than Draught. The body and flavor are richer, as well. Hints of licorice join the cocoa and coffee, and increased sweetness makes it seem a bit less bitter. This is my favorite version of Guinness.
Guinness has been brewing Foreign Extra Stout since 1801. At 7.5% alcohol, it is almost twice as strong as Guinness Draught. This is reflected in the medium-full body and light warming sensation of alcohol. The flavor is a blend of fruit, roast and moderate brown-sugar sweetness. Notes of raisin and dried cherry give an almost vinous counterpoint to coffee and bitter cocoa. Hop bitterness is fairly high and lingers into the finish, but the body and sweetness keep it from going over the top.
A non-Guinness option also from Ireland is Murphy’s Irish Stout. The profile of Murphy’s is very similar to Guinness Draft. But subtle differences do make it distinctive. It has the same light body and creamy, nitrogen-carbonated texture. The roasted bitterness is a little less pronounced, allowing a bit more sweetness to come through. Although coffee flavors are still present, this beer favors cocoa.
For a pick-me-up during what can be a long day of partying there is Irish Coffee Stout from Lift Bridge Brewing Co. in Stillwater. To make this, they blend a whiskey-barrel-aged imperial stout with a strong milk stout and then infuse the mix with cold press coffee. The resulting beer does indeed taste like Irish coffee. Coffee, cream, sugar and whiskey all come through, but none overwhelms the other. Whiskey lingers for a long and delicious finish.
If roasty stouts aren’t your thing, try an Irish red ale.
Smithwick’s Red Ale is the classic from Ireland. Smithwick’s has been brewing beer since 1710 and the company claims that Red Ale is Ireland’s oldest beer. It’s a malt-forward beer, but with a sturdy bitterness and dry finish that keep any sweetness at bay. The chief character is caramel and bread-crust malt, with just a faint whiff of chocolaty roast. Herbal hops provide a nice counterpoint. Red Ale is a light, yet tasty treat that I could drink all day.
Conway’s Irish Ale from Great Lakes Brewing Co. is a delicious alternative example. At just over 6% alcohol, it’s a bit stronger than most examples of the style. But with the added strength comes bolder flavor. Layers of luscious caramel and biscuit malt hold sway with just enough bitterness to keep it from being too sweet. Subtle notes of chocolate and roast lurk deep below along with hints of peppery hops and cherry-like fruit. It has a long-lasting caramel finish with a touch of roast to give an impression of dryness.
If you want to go even lighter, an Irish cream ale is a good option. There are two great options currently available in the Twin Cities.
Wexford Irish Style Cream Ale has a profile similar to an English bitter, but with less bitterness and a greater malt presence. Biscuity malt is the main feature, with notes of toffee in support. The bitterness is enough to cut any sweetness, but not enough to get in the way of the malt. Herbal hops and an orange-marmalade note complete the picture. The finish lingers on malt with long-lasting toffee and biscuit flavors.
Mythic Mongrel from Bad Weather Brewing Co. in St. Paul is a great local option for the style. This one leans even more heavily on malt than the Wexford. Biscuit and caramel dominate the palate with only the slightest hint of herbal/floral hops. Malt is accompanied by a subtle fruitiness. A bitter kick enters at the finish, clearing away any sweetness and leaving you craving another sip.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.