IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

An Irish toast, with beer worth drinking

This St. Patrick's Day, choose quality over quantity

Though plenty of unfortunate things happen when Americans show our love for the Irish, one offense truly stands out.

“The worst thing we've done about St. Paddy's Day is to put green food coloring in bad beer,” laments Thomas Dalldorf, editor and publisher of Celebrator Beer News. “The Irish think we're absolutely foolish for doing that.”

There are parades and songs and the chance to dust off that clover-green turtleneck you'd never wear otherwise. But let's face it: Beer plays a big role — a defining role — in how we celebrate St. Patrick's Day.

If we're lauding a country with such great beer, why do so many of us drink gallons of swill come March 17?

The prevailing theory is that the day might, just might, have something more to do with getting plastered than with the originally religious overtones of honoring the Emerald Isle's patron saint. I'd prefer to think maybe it's just because we don't know better.

And there's plenty of propaganda afoot to confuse us. Beer distributors are notorious for carpeting bars and restaurants with the usual displays of shamrocks and leprechauns — “Some of them were just offensive,” says Ciaran Staunton, owner of O'Neill's bar in New York City — to temporarily re-theme drinking holes of any stripe as Irish Central for a day.

It's hard to find much of an economic or cultural link between tepid mass-market monsters like Budweiser and Coors and Irish culture — though Guinness, perhaps in a mark of its own falling star, has been licensed to brew Bud in a Kilkenny facility since 1986, and Coors does manufacture George Killian's Irish Red. That hasn't stopped beer's biggest names from trying to latch onto a wee bit of Irish glory.

Worse, Ireland's own crown brews — Guinness and Harp — have been commandeered by Diageo, the world's largest liquor firm. That brings with it the sort of marketing muscle that makes purists lament the demise of much-loved slogans like “My Goodness, My Guinness!”

"Those don't even exist anymore,” says Kevin Sullivan of Seattle beer merchant Bottleworks. “It's just 'Sale!'”

Even so, I'd like to think that quality can trump quantity on St. Patrick's Day.  Why not make it a moment to revel in great beer -- instead of a great many beers?

Guinness is struggling with market share, but it still dominates the Irish market and some 12 million kegs are produced annually. Few other authentic Irish brews even make it to these shores, and then only in tiny quantities.

And frankly, it's hard to beat a pint of Guinness, with its smooth, nitrogen-enhanced head and eat-with-a-spoon flavor. But in the interest of good beer, we decided to consider some alternatives.

Stouts: Let's face it — you can't substitute Guinness. Other Irish stouts like Murphy's may appeal more to some palates, but there's not many on the U.S. market. We gave Cork's storied Beamish Genuine Irish Stout (Scottish & Newcastle, San Rafael, Calif.) a whirl, but the most charitable tasters could do was call it "junior-varsity Guinness."

There's nothing wrong with toasting the day with an American beer, though; domestic microbrew stouts are aplenty. Adam Tolsma, beer director of Green's Beverages in Atlanta, suggests Sierra Nevada's stout as an easy-to-find option, along with Victory Storm King Imperial Stout from Downingtown, Pa., Great Divide's Yeti stout from Denver and the “insanely strong” Dogfish Head WorldWide Stout from Rehoboth Beach, Del.

We were fans of the Old. No. 38 Stout from North Coast Brewing Co. in Fort Bragg, Calif. It's too carbonated for the Irish style, but has a perfumed nose and a coffee finish the length of a freight train. Its name hails from an engine on an old California railroad, and we'll extrapolate from that a nod to the backbreaking Irish role in building rails from sea to sea.

If you can manage to down more than a few of these in one night, you really should reconsider that second career in a sideshow.

Ales: The traditional Irish ale is red and has just a bit of sweetness. Few authentic Irish selections appear on the market, but plenty of domestic facsimiles can be found. We were partial to Dick's Irish Style Ale from Centralia, Wash., which was malty and rich, with some cocoa and coffee in the mix. It also goes great with the corned beef and cabbage you're likely to encounter on your Celtic binge.

You might also try your hand with a cream ale, though one of the most popular “Irish” cream ales, Wexford (Thames America, Sebastopol, Calif.), is actually brewed in England. 

Under no circumstances should you toast St. Patrick's Day with British beer, unless you're looking for trouble. Anyway, we thought the Wexford had a Guinness mouthfeel (it uses nitrogen, too) but not much taste.

American ales such as Hale's Cream Ale from Seattle (made in what it calls the “Dublin style”) would certainly stand in as a worthy drink for the night.

Anything else? Our conclusion was that it's really, really hard to trump Guinness when it comes to adding a dash of Irish to your day.

But honestly, any decent beer should serve you just fine for the evening. Or order up a half and half (stout and lager mixed) -- and presumably not a loyalist black and tan (stout with Bass ale). The important part, and we're going to stand by this, is to take the day as an opportunity to celebrate a culture that knows a heck of a lot more about brewing than we do. That means drinking beer that doesn't suck.

And no green food coloring, or the shillelagh patrol may be looking for you.

Lifestyle editor Jon Bonne usually writes about wine. If you're looking for Irish wine, he advises that Wine Geese are easier to find.