Glass of Irish red beer.

Irish Red Beer: a Beer With a Proud Tradition

If you’re looking for a fierce ale from a country that’s proud of its beer, you definitely need to try an Irish Red Beer. Irish red beer, also known as Irish red ale or Irish ale, is a perfect representation of the country of Ireland itself. It’s loved for its relatively low bitterness combined with subtle malt flavors that tease the senses.

Glass of Irish red beer.

Often regarded as a pale ale, Irish red beer is a favorite of Ireland, as well as the United States. Let’s dive a little deeper into what an Irish red beer is and how to get your hands on one.

What Exactly is an Irish Red Beer?

Irish red beer is derived from traditional brewing methods with traditional ingredients but with a slight twist. The two main ingredients utilized are killed malts and roasted barley, which give the beer its characteristic red color. This type of beer is slightly lighter and less potent than you would assume by looking at it and by knowing of its Irish origins.

While the appearance of an Irish red beer can be deceiving, it’s extremely similar in taste and feels to traditional American lagers. In fact, if you’re blindfolded and don’t see which is which, you could easily mistake the Irish red beer for the American lager. Irish red beer is very approachable thanks to its light taste and lack of bitterness, that’s typical of IPAs and similar varieties.

History of the Irish Red Beer

The very first Irish red ale came to Ireland courtesy of a brewery operated by Danial Sullivan in 1710. The brewery was located in the city of Kilkenny, which achieved previous fame thanks to St. Francis Abbey, which had been brewing ale since the 14th century AD.

In general, the town of Kilkenny was considered an Irish-Catholic brewing metropolis. There were a number of Catholic families that set up distilleries and breweries in the 1700s, and they remained operational into the 18 and 1900s. Due to Kilkenny’s favorable climate, the city’s agricultural hub provided abundant yields of corn, wheat, and barley.

Glass of Irish red beer.

With the establishment of Kilkenny as a beer-brewing mecca, the first Irish red beer was known as Smithwick’s. Smithwick’s was the brand name used by Irish brewer John Smithwick, who opened up his operation in the historical St. Francis Abbey. Unfortunately, John fell on hard times and was forced to sell the abbey, which led to several changes in hand for nearly a century.

Finally, in 1827, Edmund Smithwick, John’s grandson, was able to reacquire the abbey. He went on to turn Smithwick’s into the top brand and brewery in the area, and it remained as such into the mid-1900s. Ironically enough, the Smithwick’s brand was acquired by another Irish brewing monster, Guinness, in 1965, and they relaunched the Irish red beer with a vengeance.

Irish Red Beer in America

Because of its popularity in European markets, there are now many American craft breweries that have their own versions of Irish red beer. This variety was found to be the perfect brew for those who were new to the world of beer. Irish red is the type of beer that isn’t relegated simply to St. Patrick’s Day. It’s one that should be enjoyed year-round all across the country.

Characteristics of an Irish Red Beer

Irish red beer is meant to be an easy-drinking pint that often has subtle flavors. The balance should be slightly malty with an initial toffee or caramel sweetness that can verge on the slightly grainy biscuit side. There should also be a touch of roasted dryness in the finish.

Depending on your specific brew, there might be more emphasis on the caramel flavorings and the sweetness level. Other styles will feature the graininess and the roasted dryness more. Either way, however, Irish red beer should be relatively free of bitterness and easy to drink.

Closeup of a glass of Irish red beer.

Flavor and Aroma

The flavor and aroma of an Irish red beer are simplistic yet complicated at the same time. There should be little to moderate amounts of caramel malt flavor contributing a slight sweetness. You should also be able to note a toasty or toffee-like quality in the taste and aroma. The goal, however, is to never be too overpowering with any one flavor and to maintain a neutral palate.

Typically, this style will have a slightly dry finish but is never bitter. You might also pick up on a slightly earthy or floral flavor and aroma thanks to the hops that are used, but this varies from brew to brew. In general, Irish red beer is clean, smooth, and easy to drink, with a good balance that tends to be slightly malty. However, certain brews use roasted grains to increase bitterness and reduce malt.

Malt Character

Irish red beers typically have low to medium candy-like caramel, toffee, or toasty malt sweetness. It may also have a subtle degree of roasted barley or roasted malt character and complexity, depending on the brew.

Glasses of malts and beer brewing grains.

Mouthfeel

This beer should feel smooth and light while sipping on it with medium to high carbonation.

Clarity

Irish red beer has excellent clarity and should be clear to hazy depending on your particular ale. The color is characteristically copper-red to reddish-brown but isn’t typically blood-red.

Alcohol Content

Irish red beer is the true definition of a session beer. The alcohol content is usually between 3% and 5%, with 6% being on the very high end. Commercial versions are usually on the lower end, while craft breweries tend to be more liberal with the ABV. If you can easily taste the alcohol, the content is too high.

Food Pairings With an Irish Red Beer

Like most light to medium-bodied beers, Irish red beer goes well with a wide variety of foods. Red meat, white meat, turkey, and roasted vegetables are all good options with an Irish red beer.

A grilled steak.

Tips for Serving the Beer

If you want to get the most out of your Irish red beer, you should serve it in a traditional pint glass. You should also make sure that the beer is served at a temperature of 40 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

What are the Ingredients in an Irish Red Beer?

They should generally have a bit of roasted barley or black malt to provide reddish color and dry roasted finish. Pale base malt and caramel malts were more expensive in the olden days, so not all brewers utilized them as they do today. English hop varieties such as East Kent Golding or Perle are ideal. You can use either ale or lager yeast for the yeast portion.

Where Can I Get a Good Irish Red Beer?

There are a number of top-notch Irish red beer options out there. In fact, I was able to enjoy one just last night at Three Odd Guys Brewing. While their version is called The Motorboatin’ Leprauchan, here are some of the other top options out there.

Closeup of bottles of George Killian's Irish Red beer.

Conclusion

Irish red beer is an excellent option whether you’re new to the beer world or an experienced drinker. It’s light and subtle enough to not overwhelm the senses, but it’s tasteful enough to be the highlight of your night out. You would do well to put it on your list of beers to try if you haven’t already done so.

Closeup of a glass of Irish red beer.

To learn about other styles of beer, read our beer blog posts.

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