The Joys and History of Irish Beer


Discussions of Irish beer usually begin and end with one word: Guinness. There is no doubt that Arthur Guiness’ great creation is the most famous beer in the world, let alone in Ireland. But there is much more to the beer scene on the Emerald Isle than just the meal-in-a-glass that draws all the headlines.

a pint of guinessOf course one cannot simply ignore Guinness when dissecting Irish beer. In the Eighteenth Century, Arthur Guinness opened a brewery producing porter, a style borrowed from England. But to avoid a tax on malted barley, the Guiness brewery used unmalted barley, producing a drier variety, now known more commonly as stout. The stout is an important part of Irish history as it was the principal beverage for the ordinary citizen for many years.

murphy's LogoElsewhere in the United Kingdom, the advent of pale ales began to drive the market away from stouts and porters, but Ireland remained a stronghold. This bastion of dark, heavy brews was due to the enormous success of Guinness but also the emergence of Murphy’s (previously known as Lady’s Well until 1983) and Beamish as worthy domestic competitors in the smooth and creamy world of dry stouts. Both Beamish and Murphy’s come from County Cork, so there are regional preferences in stouts as Guinness is made in Dublin.

Irish stouts are very frequently served at or near room temperature. Americans, unused to warm beer, are frequently stunned by this practice upon visiting Ireland. For those unable to handle the lukewarm style of the Irish stout, Guinness does brew a version of its famous draft in an Extra Cold version. The temperature of the stout will be familiar to American tourists, though it does take a little away from the authentic experience of a Guinness Draught.

Harp LagerLike many other countries, the infiltration of pale ales eventually caught up with Ireland and now roughly 60% of beer sold in the country is of one pale variety or another. The most popular lager in Ireland is made by Harp, a very new entrant on the Irish beer scene. Having been brewed only since 1968 and in Dundalk, Harp represents a totally different type of beer drinking experience than its much older counterparts. But Harp does serve a deliciously crisp and clean lager and rivals any beer in the British Isles in quality.

smithwicks irish aleFalling somewhere in between stouts and lagers are Irish Reds. These beers are named as such because of their reddish color derived from roasted barley, rather than with caramel coloring like American reds. The largest brewer of these reds is Smithwick’s, based in Kilkenny . It is the oldest operating brewery in Ireland, going strong since 1710. Smithwick’s has a wonderful red hue and a smooth finish, much like a stout. There is much more of a complex taste involved in an Irish Red than with either a stout or a lager. MacArdle’s Ale and Messrs. Maguire’s Rusty Ale are other reds that are not hard to find in Ireland but would cause a longer search back in the States.

As is the case with Scottish beer, Irish brews are best enjoyed in the company of locals at a pub. Many American tourists have been to St. James’s Gate , the Guinness brewery in Dublin , and many more will follow. But to truly get the most out of the beer experience while in Ireland, head for a pub, ask for a pint and enjoy any of the brews native to the island.

Written by Michael Orr for

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