On the Road: Sampling the Beers of Ireland

Last month, I joined my family on a trip to Ireland to celebrate my parents signing their final tuition check my sister’s college graduation. Believe it or not, I found some time between sightseeing and “trad” music sessions to grab a pint or two of local brews. Here’s a rundown of what I learned about the beer scene on the Emerald Isle.

Lovely Day for a Guinness

I’ve always found Guinness to be a pretty good, but not great, beer. And while it’s certainly better than American macrobeers, I found it lacking in the pronounced coffee and chocolate flavors that I crave when I’m in the mood for a stout. Having heard, of course, that Guinness is better in Ireland, I was eager to see if my trip to Ireland might change my opinion.

I’ll start by saying that while Guinness does seem to taste a little bit better across the pond, it’s not a vastly different beer. It’s certainly fresher, both due to lower shipping times and the fact that Irish pubs go through Guinness so fast that kegs never sit for long. Those pubs also have clean draught lines, clan glassware, and a proper pour, so the beer’s best foot is always forward.

Ultimately, though, context is key. Most often, I ordered a Guinness as an after-dinner drink while listening to live music. And in that setting, it’s the perfect beer: rich and flavorful enough to be more than just a thirst quencher, but light enough (both in terms of body and alcohol) that you can nurse an imperial pint or two over the course of a two-hour music session. Guinness may not necessarily be the best beer in Ireland, but it is the best beer for Ireland’s pub culture.

A Foreigner’s Favorite

Guinness does, however, make the best beer I had in Ireland: Guinness Foreign Extra Stout. Originally developed in the early 1800s as an overseas export beer, Foreign Extra Stout is a hopped up version of Guinness Extra Stout. (A brief aside: when you order Guinness on draught, you’re likely drinking Guinness Draught, first developed in 1959. This is the classic, creamy, nitrogen-infused pour most people think of when they think of Guinness. Guinness Extra Stout by contrast, is the still-available original, which is a bit more robust and my preferred option for buying by the bottle on St. Patrick’s Day.) Foreign Extra Stout is the IPA of the Irish stout family – a beer that was generously hopped for reasons of necessity that ended up being mighty tasty in its own right. It’s a delicious mixture of sweetness and bitterness, with the chocolate and coffee notes that the best stouts all have, while maintaining perfect balance.

In addition to my favorite beer, Guinness made the beer I ordered most often: Hop House 13 Lager. While crisp and hoppy like a Pilsner, they use Australian and American hops that give it a brightness and fruitiness atypical of Old Word lagers. It’s an excellent pre-dinner beer after a long day on your feet.

Red(y) for a Certain Style

Of course, my favorite part of exploring Ireland’s many pubs was the opportunity to sample Irish Red Ales. The most famous, and most prevalent, is Smithwick’s, which you can reliably find at most Irish pubs in the U.S. It’s a solid red ale, with a clean finish that almost tastes as though it’s been lagered. In that way, it (along with many Irish Reds) differs from American amber/red ales, which finish with either a subtle hop bite (like Bell’s Amber), or with lingering fruitiness (like Fat Tire).

My favorite widely available Irish red was O’Hara’s Irish Red, specifically when it’s served on nitro. Super smooth, flavorful and malty, this beer pairs perfectly with juicy pub burgers. Other noteworthy Irish Reds were from Galway Bay (medium-bodied and well balanced), Franciscan Well (a bit more hop-forward, like an American Amber) and Kilkenny (ultra-smooth).

Getting Crafty

Even in a country known for one world-famous beer, there is a bit of a craft beer movement. The results of that movement, much like here in the States, vary wildly. Nearly all of the craft breweries seemed to have an Irish Pale Ale (an India Pale Ale with local branding), and an Irish Red. Many have a blonde and an Irish Stout as well. The IPAs in particular were all over the board, from indiscriminate hop bombs to perfectly balanced exemplars of the style. The best one was Galway Hooker. This beer, named for the Galway Bay’s historic fishing boats, is bright and hoppy while still being super drinkable; it’s a sort of toned down west coast IPA for the west coast of Ireland. Plus, while plenty of beers get away with suggestive branding, capitalizing on a double entendre that ties back to your home town’s roots is down right impressive in an industry known for witty marketing.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a craft beer movement if it didn’t involve a bit of selling out. I found the most consistently good brewery to be Cork’s Franciscan Well. Everything I tried of theirs was good, and they had an awesome courtyard beer garden. Naturally, I later learned that they sold to Molson Coors in 2013, showing that wherever there’s a budding craft beer movement, there’s a global brewery ready to buy a seat at the table.

Speaking of Coors . . .

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that every pub I went to had Coors Light on draught. It turns out that Heineken distributes Coors Light in Ireland, and boy are they good at it. The most interesting part: locals who drink it tend to do so in a glass with ice. And that’s all I have to say about that.

If you’ve enjoyed our tour of Ireland, pub-style, please consider supporting us as a patron. It’s easy. Just click here.

Nicholas Blashill
Nicholas Blashill

Nick Blashill is a native of Downers Grove who has recently returned to the Chicago area. By day he works in market research, but he is looking forward to sharing the experiences with Chicago’s craft beer and music scenes that fill his free time.