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Irish ayes

Don’t go green on St. Patrick’s Day
By JOSH SMITH  |  March 10, 2010

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Beer comes in a rainbow of different colors, but green is not one of them. Unless it's St. Patrick's Day, of course.

For craft beer drinkers, this is one of several inherent tensions with St. Patrick's Day, one of the biggest drinking days of the year. (Believe it or not, the single biggest drinking day comes the day before Thanksgiving, when all of those college students and extended family return home for the holidays.)

Generally, those who are all about the big drinking holidays and craft beer drinkers are at odds philosophically. Whereas many St. Patrick's Day revelers drink to get drunk, craft beer aficionados drink for the beer, the camaraderie, the experience. This seems a surmountable obstacle though, since we too can enjoy a good party with a sessionable craft beer now and then.

Fortunately, there is no shortage of highly drinkable beers to choose from coming out of Ireland. That number just grew a little bigger when STRANGFORD LOUGH BREWING started contract brewing out of the recently closed Buzzards Bay facility in Westport, Massachusetts. Their beers tend to be on the lighter side, with the LEGBITER ALE producing a nice, spicy hoppiness.

Now the Irish have contributed two major styles to craft beer, starting with Irish Red Ales. The style tends to be sweet and malty, with SMITHWICK'S, MURPHY'S IRISH RED BEER, and O'HARA'S IRISH RED as the most recognizable brands. The strong maltiness usually prevents me from drinking more than one red at a time, but a pint of Smithwick's is a perfectly reasonable option this St. Patrick's Day.

Of course, what Ireland is known for is its easy-drinking stouts — not a bad thing in this age of heavy and high-alcohol imperial stouts. Foremost is GUINNESS DRAUGHT, which is measured as the gold standard for many beer drinkers. While I have to disagree, Guinness knows what it does, and it does it very well: appearance and drinkability. That cascading nitrogen pour is a thing of beauty, perfectly framed with a billowy tan head. The nitro pour also imparts an unmistakable creaminess, making the beer silky smooth and easy to gulp down.

Ultimately, though, Guinness is too watered-down for my taste and the malts are kind of sour. Essentially, this is a light stout. If you're looking for flavor, try GUINNESS' EXTRA STOUT, with its bold coffee taste and astringent bitterness.

Guinness doesn't have a monopoly on Irish Dry Stouts, though. MURPHY'S and BEAMISH both put forward strikingly similar light stouts, albeit with slightly more roasted flavor than Guinness. Given my druthers between the Big Three, I pick Beamish for its note of chocolate malts. And O'HARA'S IRISH STOUT belongs in another class altogether, both for its world-class flavor and the fact it doesn't use a nitro pour like the other three.

Sacrilegious as it may be, I can think of several American brewers that do an even better job with the style. NORTH COAST brews their OLD #38 STOUT with a strong coffee taste and accompanying bitterness. AVERY'S OUT OF BOUNDS STOUT is almost equally well-brewed. Closer to home, Maine's SHIPYARD BLUE FIN STOUT has just as much flavor, with a balance that makes it very sessionable.

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