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Oakes Weekly - March 17, 2005
Irish Beer Styles
March 17, 2005
Written by Oakes
St. Patrick’s Day is upon us once again. It’s a Hallmark holiday, celebrated mainly by people who need an excuse to get drunk. Whatever floats your boat, I suppose. Unless you’re an idiot, you won’t drink sort of green beer. OK, it’s not really hurting anybody, but I’m into authentic flavour, not contrived. So if you’re going to indulge in the festivities, do it up in authentic style, with real Irish food and real Irish beer. Or just admit that you don’t care and drink whatever beer tastes best – that’s what I plan to do.
So what is Irish beer? It is generally accepted that Irish beer styles include Stout and Irish Ale. It could be reasonably argued that Foreign Stout is Irish as well, though you might have trouble actually buying any there. They still make it though, but it’s one of the cruel jokes that macrobrewers play on beer lovers that they’ll make tasty stouts all over the world, except for the North American audience. We have to bring it in from Sri Lanka and squirrel it away, showing it off only to our most hardcore beerfriends. But that’s a topic for another day.
Today, I want to explain the former two styles, in honour of the day.
As with leprechauns and the pot ‘o gold at the end of the rainbow, not everyone believes in Irish Ale. It is a tough style to pin down, actually. Part of the problem is that it fits right inside today’s definition of Amber Ale. But at the time Jackson first decided that Irish Ale was a distinct beer style, there really weren’t that many Amber Ales in the world – and indeed that style was never part of Jackson’s writing. So what is Irish Ale? It is a style of amber/red ale that was modeled on the popular ales of 60’s and 70’s Ireland – Smithwicks, Macardles, Phoenix and beers like that. Of these, only Smithwicks remains a widely-recognized entity.
The style was written more to distinguish it from Bitter than from Amber Ale, with mentions of rich caramel and buttery character. Even those are still to be found in some examples of Bitter, which I suppose isn’t a surprise given the vast range of flavours and aroma found under that rubric.
Ultimately, though, this is a style that exists because people believe it to exist. “Irish” is a word with some serious cachet amongst beer lovers and that is why brewers are quick to use it on their labels. The examples listed as Irish Ale tend to fall within pretty much the same range as Amber Ale, but they are labeled as Irish or are from Ireland.
They are amber-red in colour, malty in palate though they might be a bit dry in the finish. Malt caramel varies from earthy to caramelly, complex to simple. Strength is moderate. Macrobrewed examples can be blander still, and some people consider the use of nitrogen on an Irish-themed ale to qualify a beer as an Irish Ale (see Kilkenny). Nitrogen may have been popularized by an Irish brewer, but it can be used with any style, Irish or otherwise.
Then there is the ever-popular stout. Lord knows a lot of people find good beer via Guinness and a lot of people give the pint of black its first real go on March 17th, so despite a dramatic decline in quality (especially bitterness and roastiness) since the dawning of the Diageo era, it can’t be all that bad. The history of Guinness is the history of stout.
Stout and porter were once, and may very well be once again, the same style. Arthur Guinness started an ale brewery in Dublin and soon began to brew porter as well. This became very popular, and soon the ales were phased out. From there, Guinness brewed multiple versions of porter – including one dubbed Extra Stout Porter. The word Stout was an adjective used in conjunction with many types of beers at the time, denoting strength. Pale Stout was not uncommon back then. Over time, the word porter was dropped from the name and we were left with Guinness Extra Stout, a name still famous today. Guinness Porter actually continued until the 1970s, by which time it was strictly a Belfast local beer. They also began exporting very early in their history, not just to England but also to English colonies around the world. This led to the Foreign Stout style.
Like all dark beer styles, stout suffered greatly at the hands of pale lager in the 20th century. A point came where each of the stout styles existed as only a handful of brands. Dry Stout, from Ireland, was embodied by Guinness, Beamish and Murphy’s. This style of stout still exists, but the term Stout today is more of a category than a style.
A sound case could be made for the existence of a separate Dry Stout category, but there is in my view a blurring of the lines sufficient enough to include these in the general Stout category. This is due in no small measure to the fact that Dry Stout is based only on three beers, all of whom share many similar characteristics. What I mean is, it seems to me that Dry Stout was a style that was more narrowly-defined than it needed to be, simply because there were only three of them. So as more examples come into play, the notion that Dry Stout must taste like one of the big three seems anachronistic to me, especially when you consider how the draught versions of those beers have had their true flavour profile altered at serving by way of nitrogen dispensation. All session stouts that are not of the sweet or oatmeal types should be dry but I feel they do not necessarily have to be “Irish”.
Stouts are black or near black, and should have a dark brown head. There is nothing etched in stone that says this must be the product of nitrogen, but it certainly seems that way sometimes. The body should be moderate to full. Flavour and aroma should be roasty and bitter, with coffee, toast and other dark malt notes as well. Hop character is usually limited to bitterness, which ranges from 30-50 IBUs, but some stouts will have a little complementary hop flavour or aroma.
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The word Stout was an adjective used in conjunction with many types of beers at the time, denoting strength. Pale Stout was not uncommon back then.
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