Monday, 13 June 2011

The origins of Irish Red

Irish Red - crap, invented beer style or what? Let's look back at its early roots.

It's funny how it seems to have been forgotten that classic Irish Red Ale Smithwicks started its life as a Pale Ale. Over the years its been kicked around a bit by its owners until it ended in its current sorry state: a Pale Ale with no hop character at all.

This text explains why beers like Smithwick's came into existence:


Strangman, Davis and Co. of Waterford, represent a vast and influential trade in Ireland, by the exhibition of two casks of Ale and Porter. It would be rather a difficult matter to express any opinion as to the character of the liquor from the appearance of the vessel in which it is contained; besides, I must admit my total incompetency to pronounce a judgment, in any shape, upon an article which is so popular, and so largely consumed. It is only necessary to say, with respect to the Irish brewing trade, that it is recovering from the serious injury which it sustained by the temperance movement, and the renewed depression in the years of famine; that its home consumption is very little interfered with by English importation—Bass' pale or bitter Ale being the chief article which finds anything like favour in this country; and that the Irish brewers, on the contrary, do a large and increasing business in England, and with foreign countries. Cork Porter, Drogheda Ale, and Dublin Stout, are well known and highly appreciated out of Ireland. The firms of Beamish and Crawford, and Lane, of Cork, and Guinness of Dublin, are amongst the most eminent in the United Kingdom. Abbott of Cork also enjoys a high reputation. There are, besides, several prosperous breweries in the principal towns throughout the country. Kinsale, Bandon, Fermoy, Youghal, Dungarvan, and many others in the neighbouring counties, have each their thriving brewery.
"The industrial movement in Ireland, as illustrated by the National Exhibition of 1852" by John Francis Maguire, 1853, pages 64 - 65.
See what I mean? Pale Ale was the only English beer to have any popularity in Ireland. It wasn't a cheap beer. No surprise then that local breweries took to brewing their own version.

Many years later, looking for Irish styles, someone decided Red Ales were a particluarly Irish style. Rather than just crappy key Pale Ale. Given time, style hunters have probably decided Watney's Red was a great example of English Red Ale. Just a shame it died before they had chance.


Thomas Barnes said...

Beer style evolve. Does Irish red owe its origins to pale ale?

Certainly; you've given good evidence for that.

Is Irish red ale now its own identifiable type of beer?

Quite possibly. Michael Jackson was a keen observer of the British brewing scene, yet he was one of the first to identify Irish red as its own style, rather than just a permutation of bitter.

While it's not as extreme a divergence from the English bitter tradition as American pale ale is, I would argue that there are now three functional differences which (arguably) make Irish red its own style: reduced hopping levels, the addition of a tiny bit of unmalted roasted barley to the grist to give the beer its reddish color and a slightly drier finish, and, most importantly, the use of a strain of ale yeast which produces a slightly different flavor profile than English ale yeasts.

Ron Pattinson said...

Thomas, are they really coloured with roast barley? The only sources I've seen mention that are ones I don't trust.

Beer Nut did a tasting to see if it was possible to tell the difference between English keg Bitter and Irish Red. He couldn't spot which was Bass and which was Smithwick's.

Gary Gillman said...

As I recall, Jackson wrote that Irish red ale could be regarded as a separate style due to the particular type and colour of the malt used to make it. The Irish barley and type of kilning helped to create a regional taste, exemplified by George Lett's beer, ironically since Lett at Ennisworthy had stopped production by the 1970's but continued its influence through license arrangements. It's possible that Irish red ale only acquired its cachet when finally in keg form although I would think the keg is a continuation of earlier, more characterful beers.

Irish red ale is probably a type of mild ale since I doubt it was ever highly hopped, the surviving examples don't suggest that character i.e., even allowing for falling of hop rates over the years. Perhaps it was originally a type of pale ale, but I don't think so.

The style took off in America under Jackson's influence and is a mainstay of the craft brewers. It's never been a favourite of mine, I'm not sure why.


Gary Gillman said...

I just want to add that I don't doubt today they might get the colour today through addition of roast barley to pale malt, but I believe originally the type of pale malt used for ale in Ireland was kilned deeper than for standard pale malt, or so I understood Jackson writing in the 1970's.

Anyway, a taste emerged, possibly influenced by yeast types as well. This taste was soft, buttery, creamy, malty-sweet - mild ale in the older terminology.

I'd regard Smithwicks - but not necessarily the other Irish-made ales - as rather different from the ubiquitous Bass pale ale. It might be harder though to distinguish it from, say, Newcastle Brown Ale on draft. (I think I could though).

In the end though, it's not so much that Irish red ale is a crappy beer as that it is all keg today except for any red ale made by revivalist craft brewers in Ireland and Ulster. Filtered but unpasteurized red ales in the U.S. can be excellent - although not my first choice as I said before - and give a hint at what the beer at Enniscorthy was probably like originally.


Matt said...

I've only drunk so-called Irish Red Ale in a brewpub in New York but like you say I couldn't discern a difference with keg bitter.

Perhaps the adoption of the name was linked to the rise of a paramilitary organisation with the same intials?

Gary Gillman said...

Here is a learned reference suggesting, not only that some Irish ale was red quite early in the Common Era, but that English ("Saxon") beer was to be contrasted due to its bitterness. (The author makes a parenthetical reference to how this might contradict the accepted wisdom of when hops entered English brewing). This is sort of parallel to your quotation Ron except much earlier - i.e. a local type of ale existed, so did one that was English or in that style that was regarded as different.

A search of red ale and Ireland in Google Books for the 1800's produces plenty of citations. This historical red ale would have been produced by kilning malt a certain way, not by adding roast barley to pale malt.

And so I believe Irish red ale did exist. Who knows, maybe it tasted like Rogue's example of Irish red in the States, one of the best examples IMO.


Craig said...

I always saw "Irish Red Ale" as a marketing ploy. The red equating to the stereotypical redheaded, Irish image, especially to American drinkers.

Thomas Barnes said...

@Ron. Yes, the American versions of Irish red are tinted with a bit of roast barley. You can get a reddish tint in a beer by adding a bit of roasted grain or patent malt. At very low levels in an otherwise amber beer, the darker colored malt gives a reddish to copper color.

You'd know better than I if roasted grain was ever used historically in Irish red ale. Gary's idea that Irish malts were kilned a bit differently is intriguing. If Ireland was subject to English laws before independence, they obviously wouldn't have been using unmalted grains before the Free Mash Tun act.

I agree that there is a huge amount of overlap between Irish red and some of the less assertive bitters. Also, as Gary said, they have a fair number of similarities to Mild.

If you're inclined to lump styles together, then Irish red is indisputably a a form of bitter or mild. If you're inclined to split styles, there's just enough difference to make Irish red its own thing.

Given Michael Jackson's influence on the U.S. beer community, the American love for categorizing tiny variations in beer styles, and Irish-American nostalgia for anything remotely Hibernian, it was a foregone conclusion that the BA and BJCP would define Irish red as its own style. Subsequently, some of the American craft brewers have amplified the differences.

If you ever have reason to be in the U.S. in February or early March, you'll find a number of rather tasty American interpretations of the style released as spring seasonals to cash in on the St. Patrick's Day hoopla.

When fresh, they're better than Smithwicks and distinct from Bass. Syle name aside, you might like them.

@ Matt. I believe that Michael Jackson was the first to describe the "style". The abbreviation is just a coincidence, unless he was harboring latent Provo sympathies.

@ Craig. There's also the fact that the first Irish red ales appeared in the U.S. in the 1990s, when there was minor craze for "red" beers. I don't remember if it was in response to Killians or an independent thing, though.

Andrew Elliott said...

I'm almost too ashamed to admit it, but George Killian's Irish Red was about the only thing I'd drink when I got to University. The normal American shit was too horrible, and at least the next beer I eventually tried was Sam Adams, then Guinness, Young's Double Chocolate, etc. At least I enjoyed beer WITH flavor.

When I'm stuck with buddies at some dive bar, I can at least be somewhat mildly satisfied if they have Killians on tap; sometimes they do, and I definitely prefer that to Shiner [non]Bock (which is really super popular in these parts).

Very interesting post -- can't exactly say as I've had a real Irish Red, honestly, as I was really disappointed with Smithwick's. I guess I never actually considered it an Irish Red now that I think about it, and it did seem more like a type of Pale Ale even though it was completely lacking in the hops department (and fairly lacking in the malt department IMO).

Ron Pattinson said...

I would have guessed that Red Ale was really a type of Mild. But that's not its history. Mild Ale seems to have passed Ireland by. Unlike Pale Ale.

As to how Irish versions are brewed, I can't say. My guess would be that they're coloured with some sort of sugar. It's the easiest way to get a standard colour every time.

I wonder if the brewing records of any Irish Ale brewers survive? They'd tell us a lot.

Oblivious said...

Hi Ron

The mild connection maybe be a valid theory, here are two separate Irish brewer brewing pale ale x ale and xx ale along with porter too.

Fitts in limerick where brewing x and xx ale from at least 1867 and probably well before that as the where advertised the "New Pale Ale" in the ad

Perrys where still brewing a X and XX ale in 1956 along with pale ale and India pale ale too, which was bought out by Cherries

Interestedly they sold out to Smithwick's in 1965. And "All orders for Perry's Ale after that were to be directed to E. Smithwick & Sons Ltd"

possibly they where still brewing some form of x ale around this time too that was similar to the Smithwick offerings

Gary Gillman said...

When I suggested it was a mild ale, I meant, an ale with characteristics similar to English mild in that it was not hoppy and not (apparently) vatted, not that English mild was imported and influenced it (which would be almost a contradiction in terms).

It would have been different from English mild to the degree it was red, a trait noted in ancient Irish poems ("red as wine") and in other sources, some closer to the 1800's (a Google Books search shows this).

However, colour can vary in all beer as we know, and I would say the essence of Irish red ale was and is its mildness of flavour.

In fact, when you compare it to modern pale ale and find it hard to distinguish between the two as can readily occur, the comparison really is unflattering to the pale ale. Most pale ale today is closer to an 1800's mild ale than a pale ale...

The extract I cited from the early 1800's, McCurry was the writer's name I believe, stated that the Irish beer was based on barley, so I would think the red colour was obtained naturally through a certain way of kilning it (i.e., it was all barley malt until relatively recently). There seems to have been into modern times a tradition of these ruby, russet or red Irish beers but much diminished today.


Ron Pattinson said...

Gary, another book I can just see snippets of. What I can see looks interesting.

Thomas Barnes said...

@ Ron. Caramel color from sugar would also be a good way to get a reddish color. There's no real magic to roasted barley, you're just adding a tiny bit of very dark reddish brown material to an amber or golden colored base beer to get a copper color. Darker colored crystal malt would work, too.

For those of you not familiar with them, you should try some of the better American interpretations of Irish red. The current version of Killians is a sad shadow of its former self and imported beers often aren't in good condition once they reach the US.

I'd be lying if I said that any interpretation of Irish Red ale will rock your world, but beers like Harpoon Hibernian Ale, Great Lakes Conways Irish Red, Boulevard Irish Ale and Goose Island Kilgubbin Red Ale are quite tasty, reasonably sessionable and pair decently with pub grub. Sadly, they're only available as late winter seasonals.

The Beer Nut said...

Since I wrote the article Ron links to above I've been continuing my research into the similarities of English keg bitter and Irish red. Whitbread Bitter on straight-CO2 could definitely pass as a Red, just like keg Bass. Dungarvan's Copper Coast on cask bears quite a similarity to the Marston's-brewed cask Bass, and I nearly fell over backwards when I encountered Rebel Red -- on keg a very middle-of-the-road affair -- tasting nearly identical to Harvey's Sussex Best when dry-hopped in a cask.

Obviously, petitions to the brewery have followed subsequently.

And moving on, we're now trying to establish if the newly-styled Irish Pale Ales are actually different from the American Pale Ales on which they're based. Research indicates that they're not.

Thomas Barnes said...

@ Beer Nut & Ron: I'll trust your word that there is a fair bit of overlap between Irish Red and bitter, and they're basically the same thing. It makes sense.

As usual, though, American brewers have created their own interpretation of Irish Red, to create something you might call "Irish-American Red Ale." As compared to typical American interpretations of English Pale Ale I think that it is its own "style," although a British pub-goer might identify it as a strong amber mild or a strong bitter.

The Beer Nut said...

I could pretty much guarantee you they would do no such thing.

Ron Pattinson said...

Oblivious, thanks very much for that. This is the first I've heard about X Ales being brewed in Ireland. I wonder what they were like?

But I suspect that it isn't X Ales but Irish-brewed Pale Ales that are the ancestors of beers like Smithwicks.

Anonymous said...

I like the ring of "Irish-American Red Ale" and might have to use that one day. But I might as well just call it just Irish, as I suspect American drinkers would find it more appealing that way. It all comes down to marketing, and many Americans just love anything perceived as Irish. Brewers oblige them and a recognizable style develops in the US, even if the actual Irish versions taste just like keg bitters.

All I can really tell is that there is a style of beer brewed in the US called Irish Red that is pretty distinct from other styles.