St. Patrick's Day, or at least its observance in America, is not very Irish.
The modern manifestation of the Saint's feast bears some resemblance to its original tradition - a respite from the Lenten fast being one example. But while the Irish take March 17 (or the appropriate offset date mandated by the liturgical calendar) as an opportunity to reflect on genuine Irish culture, we take it as an opportunity to get blitzed. Usually via green beer.
The origins of even that have been largely lost through time, owing more to Catholic Trinitarian doctrine than to anything else. I figure, if we're going to reduce the celebration of a unique national spirit, steeped in religious tradition, to an excuse to get drunk, we should at least drink well.
It's no great secret that most St. Patrick's celebrants will be drinking Stout. It's one of three arguably Irish beer varieties, and certainly the most credible. The only trouble is, most people will fill their quota with Guinness.
Unfortunately, Guinness just isn't that good. While it promises a creamy body, backed by a depth of roasted malt and its pursuant coffee and chocolate characteristics, I've always found the iconic stout to be somewhat meek. My younger brother, who spent a semester in Dublin last year, insists that a pint pulled in-country will spoil you for what we get here, but the point remains. Guinness is not what it purports to be.
With that in mind, I set out to find a few examples of Stout - some hewing close to the Dry Irish style and some decidedly not - that are more worth your money and your time today. I picked the brains of Justin Vann, brew enthusiast and wine/beer manager at Central Market, and local home brewer and opinionated drinker Chris White. With their suggestions rounding out a few of my own ideas, I compiled this list of non-green alternatives.
Brewdog Paradox Isle of Arran
What could be more stereotypically Irish than Stout aged in whisky barrels? Never mind the fact that the barrels once contained Scotch. If we're going to bastardize a nationality by donning leprechaun outfits, why not confuse its distilling tradition, while we're at it? This is an espresso tinted, largely headless brew that smells of grape juice and peat. There's plenty of coffee and more than a whiff of smoke, too. This is not a typical stout, showing a strikingly savory character and significant richness, highlighted by oak and smoke, with dark chocolate and berries rounding out the sweet, heady profile. Its only drawback is textural, with a somewhat thin body.
O'Hara's Irish Stout
This is the beer you should be drinking when you think you want a Guinness. There's lots of that gorgeously thick, creamy, dark tan head, even poured from the bottle. It smells like over-roasted coffee in the best possible way, with malty sweet notes coming through, as well. This is a rich, thick feeling stout with a heavy roast profile and some sweetness and brininess, making me long for someone to create black olive brittle. It finishes with subtle smokiness that rides out on a creamy underbelly and a dry finish that succinctly seals up the sweet undercurrents that permeate the beer. Fantastic.
Oskar Blues Ten Fiddy
This is another near black, headless brew. It smells like brandy, figs, and charcoal. Ten Fiddy has a very sweet, almost syrupy body with light tang, like reduced coffee and pomegranate juice. The sweetness passes, though, giving way to a lingering ashy, roasted taste. It is strangely reminiscent of the cippolini onion ash that coated a piece of hangar steak I enjoyed recently at Bootsie's Heritage Café.
Boulevard Dark Truth Stout
Very dark with a tan head that exhibits fine bubbles but little creaminess. It has a very winey, un-stoutlike aroma, largely owing to the Belgian yeast at play. This beer is exactly as the bottle describes, with a full body of heavily roasted malts showing a predominance of chocolate and coffee, punctuated by fruity esters, and capped by a smoky finish. Nice depth, full feeling, and zingy.
Green Flash Double Stout
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Darkest of the dark. True black with no tinting. For a bottled brew, this has a surprisingly creamy head, rivaling most competently pulled nitro-tapped stouts. A very alluring smell recalls coffee and dark bread baking. It's one thick beer, almost requiring chewing rather than swallowing. An incredibly deep-roasted profile fills out with hints of freshness that suggest grass and squash, with a bit of boozy astringency and some bitter notes. It's not quite chicory, but close, almost reminiscent of the rooted bitterness of Italian Amari. It's a complex brew, and drier than most non-Irish style Stouts. If you're looking for that more traditional Irish profile and don't mind leaving the land of shamrocks, this one's for you.
This is but a small sampling of the enormous variety of Stout available in the market. Just looking back through my previous Brew Blog entries, I can also recommend Allagash Black Belgian Style Stout and Left Hand Milk Stout. If you're celebrating today in stereotypical Irish fashion, think about doing it with an atypical brew. You might just find something you'll love to drink the other 364 days of the year.