Despite their blatantly Celtic moniker, brace yourself for a little bit of surprise – because it could be argued that Irish Red Ale(s) enjoy greater popularity in America than they do in Ireland. Depending on which historical reports you subscribe to, it could also be argued that Irish Reds are simply rebranded British pale ales, as well. In other words, the Irish Red that you know and love probably doesn’t have the kind of rich history that other styles do. It’s probably very recent, and very American.
Of course, Ireland tends to be more commonly associated with dry stout and porter-styled brews, so that distinction is certainly ‘part of the puzzle.’ But another factor is that American familiarity with the Irish Red was primarily sparked back in the 1980s, when Coors acquired the rights to brew and market Irish Red Ales under the name of fifth-generation Irish brewer (George) Killian (Lett). And with the continual expansion of the craft brewing industry, the Irish Red’s combination of unique characteristics, somewhat limited history, and relative openness to experimentation made it an ideal formula for domestic brewers to toy with. In other words, a little bit of mainstream backing and craft brewing enthusiasm over the past three decades is almost entirely responsible for the Irish Reds that we enjoy today (even IF the aforementioned Killian’s is actually a lager, rather than an ale).
Proving themselves among the most accessible of modern craft beer styles, Irish Reds are enticing in their unique deep-amber to reddish coloring while remaining both well-mannered and sessionable in terms of their overall palatability. Normally falling somewhere between 4.0-6.0% ABV, they are characterized as being medium-bodied while offering a smooth mouthfeel, a buttered-caramel malt aroma, minimal hoppiness, and an almost toffee-esque taste.
If you’re anything like us, that sort of description may have already left you a little bit thirsty. That said, let’s steer into the proverbial skid, diving deeper into the Irish Red Ale to find out more about its history, its key ingredients, the nuances of its brewing process and its modern commercial realization.
Misinformation and Misassociation
Having mentioned the fact that ‘Irish Red’ is a bit of a misnomer, it’s important to recognize the difference between factual and perceived relationships, when it comes to Irish Reds.
A visit to Ireland might reveal any number of reddish-brown ales, but none are actually formally classified as ‘Irish Red.’ Largely an American marketing effort, that moniker was likely designed to forge a subconscious association with stereotypes of fiery ginger-born Celts. So, while use of the term has certainly normalized in terms of conventional use, it has little historical significance. Not that there isn’t a rich history of red beer.
A trip to ancient Sumeria – 5,000 years in the past – for example, would introduce you to ‘kas-si,’ an enigmatic red beer which historians can only venture a guess as to what the ingredients were. Old world spices, coriander and wormwood, might have been components – and it was likely that hops were entirely absent from most recipes. That said, it’s believed that kas-si might have many similarities to both modern brews and the modern Irish Red, even if those similarities are largely coincidental.
Fast forward to the middle ages, and ‘red’ was a term used to distinguish brown-colored ales from the growing popularity of white wheat-based beers which were adopting the use of hops (versus the gruit herbs used by red ale brewers of that era).
And while Smithwick Brewery (of Kilkenny, Ireland) would introduce their malt-centric draught red ale in 1710, it was still largely a variant of the English pale ale.
So, it was the lack of historical precedent which prompted brewers of the late-1980’s and early-1990’s to embrace ‘red ale’ as a descriptive. It was just vague enough to allow some creative flexibility, while the incorporation of the ‘Irish’ modifier created a tenuous sense of cultural validation.
Having already skirted across the basic characteristics of the Irish Red Ale, let’s take a moment to explore them further, as spelled out by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP).
For those who might be unfamiliar with the Standard Reference Method (SRM), it is a system utilized by brewers to assess color and appearance. With a 1.0 rating representative of pale yellow color and 20.0 representative of black ales, an Irish Red tends to fall in somewhere between 9.0 and 18.0. This moderate sensibility tends to be echoed across nearly all of the Irish Red’s characteristics. Its ABV range (4.0-6.0%) for example makes it a relatively median choice, along with its body, carbonation level, alcohol warmth, and overall finish.
The absence of hoppy aroma, the strength of caramel and toffee-notes and low-to-moderate maltiness make the Irish Red largely unoffensive to the average palate. The optional presence of diacetyl can create a buttery taste and encourages a slippery and smooth mouthfeel. And the swallow tends to emphasize light roast grain qualities, allowing for a dry and medium-dry finish. That said, it’s important to note the distinction between ale and lager versions; with the former traditionally devoid of the ‘buttery’ diacetyl presence.
And, for the benefit of the true aficionado, recommended food pairings include French onion soup, lamb chops, mutton, shepherd’s pie, a Reuben sandwich, or Creme Brulee.
For those interested in brewing their own version of the Irish Red Ale, the process begins with malt selection. A higher-quality British or Irish pale ale malt is recommended, due to the darker qualities that they boast over contemporary American malts. The decision to use the latter might require the use of specialty grains, but it’s important to research portion control to ensure that your beer doesn’t move too far away from the ‘classic’ Irish Red characteristics. If using Munich or Biscuit, for example, it’s important that you don’t exceed 3/4 of a pound per 5-gallon batch.
In terms of the red coloring, that (along with added taste complexity) will come from the moderate use of roasted barley, recommended to fall in around 3-6 ounces per 5-gallon batch. The caramel/toffee flavor notes will come courtesy of Caramel/Crystal malt and should measure in at around 5-10% of the total grain bill. That said, it’s important to steer clear of malts that will encourage a darker brown appearance or two strong of a caramel flavor.
In terms of hop selection, remember that ‘less is more’ when it comes to the Irish Red. American hops should be avoided due to the prevalence of citrusy profiles. Aim for English varieties. The reserved introduction of bittering hops 60 minutes into the boil is the general rule, but it can be further supplemented as desired based on your individual taste.
Aim for a single infusion mash, maintaining a 153ºF for the initial 60 minutes, then increase the temperature around 168º-170ºF.
Depending on your desire to brew an ale or lager, the former is best suited by a good English yeast with an Irish equivalent reserved as a backup option. English will tend to provide a stronger ester profile, while Irish options will provide a weaker one. Of course, many choose to experiment with a blend of the two.
Irish Red 101
There you have it, a brief introduction to the modern-yet-enigmatic Irish Red. Popular, accessible, and open to experimentation, it’s one of our best in terms of both drinking and brewing. Give our “1849” Irish Red Ale a try when you are visiting our brewery in Fort Worth, TX. It’s one of our favorites, is it one of yours?