Irish Craft Beer: Style & History
By: Gene Fielden
The trajectory of beer in Ireland, as with so many things, has been bound up with the developments of its nearest neighbor and erstwhile colonial owner, the United Kingdom. Fashions and tastes in Dublin went hand-in-hand with that of London throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, with brown ales and porters giving way to pale ales and stouts. Though the beer-industry in the Republic of Ireland today is still overwhelmingly dominated by larger conglomerates, the craft-beer revolution sweeping the world has not left the Emerald Isle untouched.
The “missing link” between brown ales and what came to be known as stout is London Porter. It is a direct precursor to the Irish Stout, and indeed all others as well. The classic prototypical example, both on the American market and its own, is Fuller’s London Porter. Originally a mix of roasted or even charred malts, the style differentiated itself from the lightly kilned, toasted malts of brown ales. Lack of sanitation meant that the earliest porters almost certainly contained at least trace amounts of Brettanomyces and ambient bacteria, making them slightly funky or sour. They were also more heavily hopped, in part to retard such off-flavors. The development of black patent malt in the early 1800s allowed for just a small amount to be utilized for flavor and color, leaving most of the malt-bill for paler varieties, which was a great leap forward in terms of consistency and cost-savings for the breweries of the era.
The meaning of the word “Stout” itself has changed wildly over time. Originally it simply referred to a stronger (i.e. higher ABV) beer, regardless of malts or color - there existed “stout pale ales”, for example. Its appendage onto the heartier porters created a subcategory in terminology to mean a stronger, roasty dark ale: a “stout porter”. With the passage of time, and as the styles diverged in other ways, the word “porter” was eventually dropped, and “stout” changed from an adjective to a noun. The most famous iteration, and indeed the most well-known beer in Ireland the world over, is of course Guinness. Good examples of Irish Stout being made by breweries in Ireland available at Bottlecraft include O’Hara’s, from County Carlow and Murphy’s, which comes in a curiously sized 440ml can. Although Cork-based Murphy’s has been producing continuously since the early 1850s, shortly after the Famine, it is now owned by Heineken.
Although Irish Red Ales have become synonymous with Ireland throughout the world, the term itself was rarely heard on the island itself until quite recently. The style was popularized almost single-handedly by Coors Brewing, which purchased the naming rights to a defunct brand in the early 1980s and began brewing under the name George Killian’s Irish Red Ale (though what the firm produced was and remains actually a lager). The original creation had simply been referred to as a ruby-red ale in its domestic Irish market. Nevertheless, the caramelized malt presence, toffee flavors and easy-drinking low ABV made the imagined style a hit. The only example from Ireland that is imported the San Diego market is the aforementioned O’Hara’s, which is a beautiful, burnished copper ale with a noticeable chocolate-malt finish. Local favorite Alpine also makes a version, entitled McIlhenny’s Irish Red, which is nowadays only available on draft.