The Other Bubbly: Quaffing Irish beer

When Irish eyes are smiling, there’s generally a dark, frothy beer in hand. This St. Paddy’s Day piece started off as an Irish wine concept but transformed into a beer column because this holiday is really about beer, not wine. Like many others, my first beer experiences centered on vile Milwaukee’s Beast in dank fraternity taprooms in college, so maybe that’s why I turned to wine. But age has led me to appreciate a well-crafted brew, especially those from the green country of Ireland. Not that there are many. I found only six true Irish beers widely available: the real king of beers, Guinness, Harp, Wexford Cream Ale, and Murphy’s Irish Red and Stout.

Harp hails from Dundalk, Ireland (although the version available here is brewed in Canada), and is definitely for those hankering for a lighter lager beer. Lagers are the most popular American style, like Coors or Budweiser. However, Harp is far superior to its mass-produced, watered-down cousins, and perfect for those who aren’t yet initiated into the heavier, chewier Irish stouts. Harp is clean, crisp and features a pleasant bitter aftertaste.

Another lighter beer is Murphy’s Irish Red, which recently underwent a marketing makeover from Murphy’s Irish Amber. Commonly found in tap form, this slightly bitter, crisp red-hued ale proved difficult to find. But anecdotal evidence pointed to Harp being the better choice if you’re seeking a lighter experience.

FYI: Although the marketing will fool you, the reddish lager Killian’s is absolutely NOT an Irish beer. Irish Killian’s ceased production in 1956, and Coors Brewing Company licensed the name to produce it here at home.

Truly the best-known Irish beer, Guinness Stout has a dogmatic loyal following. Aficionados are almost as persnickety as diehard wine snobs, seeking the perfect temperature (42-46 degrees) and the perfect amount of head (1/4 to 1/2 inch from top of pint). If they’re trapped without a pub, they’ll deign to quaff the canned Pub Draught version released a few years ago. It comes complete with a nifty nitrogen capsule that releases thousands of tiny bubbles to promote proper froth. It works. The regular bottled Guinness, labeled “Extra Stout,” tastes flatter with less oomph. This now comes in bottled form as well. Loyalists insist on drinking all Guinness from a pint glass.

Murphy’s Irish Stout, available only in kegs in some states, is a lighter stout version. It’s slightly milder in flavor and less bitter than Guinness, so it’s a good introduction to this variety. In addition, its silky, creamy froth sliding down the sides of the glass provides good drunken entertainment.

Wexford Irish Cream Ale also sports the fun nitrogen gizmo, but I gotta say, this beer didn’t win any taste contests, not even among heavy beer fans. Cream ale is supposed to be a blend of lager and ale, light in body and pale, but Wexford didn’t come off that way to me.

Like supporting your independent restaurants, it’s definitely PC to reach for an Irish brew on St. Paddy’s Day. You’ll be contributing to the Irish economy and enjoying authentic beer for a change.

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