For me, today will probably be filled with a lot of “wearing of the green,” while listening to some U2, Dubliners, Flogging Molly, and maybe even Enya if I run out of Irish music. I hope I don’t. There will probably also be a beer enjoyed at some point. But first, a teeny bit of history.
St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated worldwide on March 17th every year in countries all over the world (and sometimes even in space! St. Patrick’s Day from space). St. Patrick’s Day was originally a religious holiday celebrating the most famous patron Saint of Ireland (who died on March 17th), and on this day Lenten restrictions on food and alcohol were removed – which is likely why the holiday has become synonymous with drinking for so many people. For its part, Canada gets pretty involved in St. Pat’s, and there are all kinds of great parades and festivals in cities like Montreal (having one of the oldest in North America) and Toronto. Here in little old New Brunswick, festivities may be a little less extravagant, but walk into any Irish pub in the province today and I’m sure you’ll be greeted with the kind of Irish warmth you’d find anywhere else in the country – just hold the green beer.
Beer in Ireland
At one time, Guinness Ltd. was the largest brewery in the world. While today that is no longer the case, the brewery is still the largest exporter of stouts in the world, but also makes a number of other popular beers that one can get around these parts.
If you haven’t had a pint of Guinness, you probably haven’t had any other Irish beers either. Many people shy away from the beer because it is pitch black, and fear that it’s too heavy. But it’s not. Guinness Draught is only 4.2% abv and drinks a lot lighter than it looks. Sure, there are some roasty qualities about it, but if you close your eyes and take a mouthful, you might just think you are drinking a really creamy lager. The creaminess that you get from a can of Guinness comes from a nitrogen-infused ball called a ‘widget’ which activates when the can is opened and poured, and that’s what produces the thick white head. This is essentially meant to emulate the process by which draft beer is poured – hence you can get the ‘tap’ experience at home (after all, so many beers just taste so much better on tap). In my opinion, Guinness is the most beautiful beer in the world. So if you’re going to have anything Irish today, it better be Guinness.
Smithwick’s Irish Red Ale
There are two styles of Irish beers: Irish dry stouts (ie. Guinness) and Irish red ales. Both are fairly low alcohol and generally pretty easy to drink. Irish reds are amber-coloured and may be a little sweet and slightly toasty. Smithwick’s is the most common example worldwide of an Irish red. It’s under 5% and fairly light on taste, so very easy to drink. If you were going to an Irish pub and wanted to order some bangers and mash, this would be your beer of choice.
At one point, stout was the drink of choice in Ireland. But, like the rest of the world, this changed with the introduction of lagers, and now lager dominates the market in Ireland, as it does here in North America. For the Bud and Coors drinkers out there, this would be the Irish beer you would be most at home with, as the profile is pretty similar – light straw colour, a bit of sweet corn aroma, clean taste and very little lingering bitterness. Definitely a beer you could have a few of.
Kilkenny Irish Cream Ale
While ‘Irish cream ale’ isn’t technically a beer style, it’s not hard to see where the beer gets its name. Actually, Kilkenny is a lot like a combination of the properties of Guinness and Smithwick’s. An old friend of mine (who really embraces his English heritage when it comes to beer) introduced me to this beer many years ago, and I’ve since come to love it. Like Guinness Draught, the can comes with a widget so the beer will be very creamy with a huge fluffy white head. And like Smithwick’s, the beer pours a reddish-brown colour, and has a lot of similar aromas and flavours. To me, this is the best of both worlds, and when I don’t want a Guinness but I want something creamy, this is what I’d reach for.
All of the above beers are available in individual cans in liquor stores across the Maritimes. But there are other great Irish beers too!
Guinness Black Lager
Guinness does a lot of dark beers, and while you can’t get some of their bigger, more taste driven ones (ie. Guinness Export, Guinness Foreign Export) around these parts, you can get their dark lager in a bottle here in NB. Guinness Black Lager has a lot more roasty smells and tastes than the classic Draught. It is also a lot less creamy. It drinks a lot like a lager (although I’d avoid drinking it out of the bottle and go with a glass – it just looks so much nicer).
O’hara’s Irish Stout
The only beer on this list made in Ireland that is not owned by Guinness. Nice to have some variety, isn’t it? Unlike Guinness Draught, O’hara’s is not a creamy stout, but what it lacks in creaminess it more than makes up for with flavour. Lots of coffee, bittersweet chocolate and some molasses dominate this beer, both in aroma and flavour. Expect bitterness on the finish. Whatever Irish dessert you might be having tonight, go with a beer like this – it can be like a dessert on its own!
There are also lots of great Irish-style beers made right here in Canada too, and, in my opinion, a lot of them are just as tasty, if not tastier than the native sons of Ireland. Each of the Maritime provinces produces at least one Irish-style beer, so they shouldn’t be hard to find.
Picaroons Traditional Ales
Picaroons has such an extensive line-up of UK inspired beers that there is no wonder that they make both classic Irish styles of beer. Timber Hog is their CBA gold-medal winning Irish dry-stout that has lots of chocolate and coffee and is as good in the morning as it is with dessert. Irish Red is their interpretation of, you guessed it, an Irish red ale. Picaroons Hampshire yeast, which they seem to use in most all of their beers, makes this beer quite sweet, but in a good way. Try this if you want a sweeter, more flavourful version of Smithwick’s, to be blunt.
The Gahan House
Gahan makes an excellent Irish dry called Sydney Street Stout which is only available in bottles during the winter months (though you can get it at the brewpub in Charlottetown year-round, but it is not nearly as good as the bottled version). It pours a thick black with a chocolatey coloured head. Coffee and chocolate are big in this beer.
Garrison Brewing Co.
Garrison has been making their Irish Red Ale for over a decade, so you know they’ve had a lot of practice. Expect an amber-coloured beer with some hop bitterness and easy drinkability.
Propeller Brewing Company
Nova Scotia’s other big craft brewery also decided they would do a seasonal Irish Red and they released it just last week in 22oz bombers. I’ve yet to try this guy.
Here are a few other Irish-inspired craft beers from Canada – some of which you can get here in NB.
Le Trou Du Diable
ANBL just started carring their products last week, and I couldn’t be happier. This excellent Quebec micro-brewery makes an Irish dry stout called Le Sang d’Encre (loosely translated to be something like “inky blood” or “ink blood” – I don’t use my French a lot). Lots of mocha and coffee in this dark coloured bad boy, featuring a picture of a giant octopus terrorizing poor sailors – now the ink part makes sense!
Mill Street Brew Pub
Mill Street also makes a somewhat less flavourful (albeit still great) Irish dry stout called Cobblestone Stout. This comes in a nitro-can a la Guinness, so you’ll get that same big white head and creaminess.
I’ve only had it at beer festivals, and that’s probably the only time it makes it out of Saskatchewan, but Dungarvon Irish Red is a great example of the style. I’ve yet to figure it all out, but I suspect the beer has some New Brunswick connections in addition to the obvious Irish ones, as the label seems to feature a picture of the legendary Dungarvon Hooper, of Miramichi lore. Try it if you find it.
Another beer festival specialty, Keeper’s Stout is a great British Columbian example of an Irish dry. Now if only it was more readily available here…
Finally, some of the highest-rated Irish dry stouts actually come right out of Maine, too, so if you head south of the border be on the lookout for Cadillac Mountain Stout which is only as far away as Bar Harbor; Shipyard’s Blue Fin Stout or Gritty McDuff’s Black Fly Stout.
And for the celiac in the crowd, Magner’s is an Irish brewery that makes some pretty good ciders.
There are all kinds imbibable options when it comes to beer on St. Patrick’s Day, so make sure when you’re out, or in, today or tonight or even still tomorrow morning that you pass on the green beer and get a true taste of Ireland instead.