Leah’s Beer School: Lesson 46

What is an Irish Red Ale?

By the 18th century, Kilkenny was established as the brewing mecca in Ireland, as producing beer had become a commercially viable industry. Despite its commercial success, Irish brewers were constantly struggling financially and were forced to rely on their own ingenuity to lower production costs. In making stouts, brewers opted to use unmalted roasted barley over expensive black patent malt, giving the beer style its signature dry Irish character. 

Similarly, Irish brewers also offered their own interpretation on an English Bitter, popular in the mid-late 19th century, using unmalted roasted barley in place of caramel malt. The result was a more reddish-hued beer, with a dry finish and just a hint of bitterness. This beer, now known as an Irish red ale, is a smooth and drinkable brew, amber to deep red in colour with rich malt notes of toast, bread crust and sometimes caramel or toffee flavours. 

Birth of the Irish Red Ale 

Irish red ale originated in the city of Kilkenny, dating back to a brewery established by Daniel Sullivan in 1702. After it was forced to close in 1918, Sullivan’s was bought up by neighbouring Smithwick’s brewery, now famous for producing the genre-defining Irish red, Smithwick’s ale. 

This style of amber ale was exclusively available in Ireland until the 1960s, when Smithwick’s began actively pursuing foreign markets. Acquired by Guinness in 1965, Smithwick’s brand was relaunched, as a maltier, less hoppy brew. In 1987, Guinness developed an export-only brand of Smithwick’s known as Kilkenny which has since evolved into its own distinct variant, with a redder colour, more bitter taste and foamier head.  

What’s in A Name?

Renowned beer historian and writer, Michael Jackson described three distinct types of Irish beer – stouts, lagers and “bland red beers,” which he referred to as Irish red ale. The style, defined by Smithwick’s ale, was legitimized by Jackson, and subsequently popularized by big American beer companies. 

In the mid-1980’s, Coors licensed Killian’s Irish Red Ale, a beer first brewed by the Killian family in County Wexford, Ireland. By the early 90s, the beer, originally called Enniscorthy Ruby Ale, had become one of America’s top selling specialty beer brands. Coors supported the popularity of this brand with a marketing campaign that highlighted the beer’s Irish heritage and distinctive color. 

Although Ireland had been brewing beer for centuries, the term “Irish red ale” was rarely, if ever, used. Smithwick’s, for example, was simply referred to as ale. Irish red ales had become so popular in North American markets, that it was imported back into Ireland and adopted as a classification by many craft brewers. 

Is Irish red a legitimate beer style? The debate continues….

Some have described it as a merely a lower quality version of an English bitter, while proponents of the style assert that it is unique in that it uses fewer hops, Irish yeast for rounder malt flavours and unmalted roasted barley for its signature colour and finish. 

Try a side-by-side comparison between an English bitter and Irish red ale, and decide for yourself.

(Leah is a Toronto based freelance writer as well as Head Beer Weenie and a server at C’est What)