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Stout, ale or porter? The essential Irish beer guide

In honor of St. Patrick's Day, a day when everyone's a wee bit Irish, we present the ultimate guide to Irish beer. Whether you prefer a deep-amber ale or dry, full-bodied stout, you'll find all your old favorites on this list, along with some new additions.

Of the Irish, the travel journalist Paul Theroux once wrote: "I cannot remember any people so quickly hospitable or easier to meet." And, he might have added, so happy to stop for a pint and a spot of the craic, that uniquely Irish form of fun. Here, for those of you who are Irish or merely aspire to be, is a guide to those essential elements in any Celtic revelry: Irish stout, ale and porter.

Three classic stouts
Joe's Bar down the street may be serving green lager this St. Patrick's Day, but in Ireland the color of beer year-round is black — as in dry, roasty stout, the Blessed Trinity being Guinness, Murphy's and Beamish. Poured slowly, to allow the prized creamy head to form, these three beers are as emblematic of Eire as shamrocks and Celtic crosses.

By far the best-known black beer the world over, Guinness is considered by some to be the standard by which all other stouts are judged. Others, like myself, may suggest that its character has been dulled over the past decade and a half. Regardless of your view, however, it is still a fine, dry, appetizing pint.

Poorer County Cork cousins to that Dublin-brewed juggernaut, Beamish and Murphy's represent two different takes on the Irish-stout style — the former more roasted and firmer than Guinness and the latter more malty and a bit chocolatey. For oysters on the half-shell or smoked salmon, choose Beamish or Guinness, but with roasted or grilled meats from pork to beef, try the Murphy's.The latest and greatest stout
While casual observers can be forgiven for thinking that Ireland offers but three stouts (or even just one!), there are actually many such brews produced throughout the Emerald Isle. Alas, these beers rarely used to make it out of their native land. That situation has now changed, thankfully, with the arrival in America of O'Hara's Irish Stout.

The pitch-black color and complex, roasted, almost winelike aroma are the first hints that O'Hara's is bigger and bolder than most of the competition. It was a champion in its class at the Brewing Industry International Awards in 2000, and it has turned more than a few heads with a rich, substantial character that recalls the way certain Irish stouts once tasted. It's dry enough for oysters, but sufficiently robust to be enjoyed with meat and cheese dishes.

Red ales
The color of Irish beer is not a uniform black; there's a parallel, though much less celebrated, tradition of Irish red ales, as well. Probably the best known globally is Smithwick's—pronounced "Smid-ick's" — a toasty, faintly caramel-like ale from the folks who brew Guinness, and a relatively recent arrival in the United States. Although brewed to a slightly different recipe than the stuff sold in Eire, it remains a more robust beer than the Coors-produced George Killian's Irish Red, which is actually a lager rather than an ale.

The Carlow Brewing Company, crafters of O'Hara's Irish Stout, also offers its interpretation of a red, and it's even more full-bodied and satisfying. Molings Traditional Red Ale is a raisiny, slightly toffee-ish ale that no one is going to mistake for a reddish-hued American pretender.

America's indigenous breweries produce more than their share of Irish-style beers, and in at least one instance, partaking of a glass or two can mean doing some good in the world. Finnegans Irish Amber may not be as full-bodied and complex as some true Irish ales, but profits from its sales go to community-outreach projects for the working poor and homeless of Minnesota. Even if you can't buy the beer (sold only in its home state), you can still donate to the Finnegans Community Fund or help out by buying a T-shirt or hat through Finnegans' Web site.

On a less altruistic front, Boston's Harpoon Brewery pays homage to that city's Irish population with its malt-accented Hibernian Ale. The regional brewery's significantly larger neighbor, the Boston Beer Company, makes the nationally available Samuel Adams Irish Red Ale.

Down in the Southeast, Arkansas residents enjoy the more moderately malty Irish Red from Diamond Bear Brewing, while Midwesterners seem to prefer a drier, more hoppy take on the style, typified by Kilgubbin Red Ale (from Chicago's Goose Island Brewing) and the toasty Irish Ale (from Kansas City's Boulevard Brewing). The latter is a seasonal beer hoarded annually by loyalists. Further west, Denver's Great Divide Brewing flies the black-beer banner with its widely acclaimed Saint Bridget's Porter.

Pairing beer and food
Traditional Irish cuisine is rustic and especially delicious when you use quality ingredients and the right ales to complement the hearty dishes. Some of the best salmon in the world is fished off the Irish coast and gently smoked in the south. As an appetizer, it partners beautifully with a glass of cool, though not cold, dry Irish stout. Traditional potato-based side dishes like cabbage-rich colcannon or the savory griddle bread known as boxty provide a fine excuse to break out a bottle or two of gently sweet, caramelly Irish red ale, especially if served alongside a roast leg of lamb. A hearty Irish stew would benefit from the popular half-and-half mixture of ale and stout known as Black and Tan. When it comes to dessert, don't forget that sweeter stouts will beautifully complement chocolate cakes (such as Chocolate Stout Cake) or Chocolate Mousse.

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