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Irish Beer Styles: What is an Irish Red Ale?

It’s almost that time of year when we put on something green and celebrate our Irish heritage, even if our ancestry says otherwise. So it seems fitting to focus on some traditional Irish ales. Today, we aren’t going to talk about that famous Irish beer brewed at St. James’s gate. We’re going to talk about its less popular yet more historic cousin, the Irish Red Ale.

Historians say that Irish beer had always had a reddish hue but one of the earliest written references to it comes from an Irish poem from the 8th Century that lists about a dozen beers from Kerry on Antrim. However, hops weren’t traditionally used in Irish beer until much later as they were difficult to grow in Ireland. Early Irish beers were instead flavored with herbs such as sweet gale or bog myrtle. Eventually, in the 1800s, Ireland would import over 500 tons of hops from England a year.

Original Smithwick'sThe Irish Red Ale we know today is thought to have originated in 1710 when John Smithwick purchased a brewery in Kilkenny on the site of an old Franciscan monastery. This original beer was known as Smithwick’s No.1 and the current iteration is more popularly known as Smithwick’s Draught. Another brewery contributing to the Irish Red Ale legacy is The G.H. Lett Brewery of Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland. They were known for their distinctive red ales. A member of the family, George Killian Lett, a fifth generation brewer, closed the brewery in 1956. In the 1980s, the name and original beer recipe was licensed to Adolph Coors Co. who began brewing Killian’s Irish Red in the United States. For some reason they altered the recipe and it is now actually an amber lager and not an ale at all.

Irish Red Ales have a sweet malty aroma. Flavors will be sweet and toasty with a hint of butteriness with a dry finish and almost not hop bitterness at all. The sweet dryness of these beers makes them extremely drinkable, not unlike a German Oktoberfest, and pair well with spicy foods. The malty sweetness and dry finish make it a great match with the saltiness of that corned beef and cabbage we all know you’re going to order.