Five days into our 1989 honeymoon in Ireland, the wife and I were driving through County Cavan and came to the little town of Belturbet. I hit the brakes when I saw a sign advertising “The Mad Ass Bar.” We went in, and talked to the barman, who I soon realized was the craziest pub landlord in Ireland.
Why? He didn’t serve Guinness Stout. In those days, that was like a bar in Buffalo that didn’t serve wings!
Thirty years later, I don’t remember his name, but I still recall his reason. “I just don’t think The Big Guy should have it all his way.” True to his word, he had the widest selection of beers we’d see in a tour around the whole country: 16, and no Guinness.
Now, I’m the last person to tell you to avoid Guinness Stout on St. Patrick’s Day. “Guinness-shot-of-Powers” rolls off my lips like a reflex when my bottom hits a barstool. But just as there is a growing array of fine Irish whiskies to choose from these days—I’d point to the astonishing Kilbeggan Small Batch Rye as a prime example—there are more than 100 breweries in Ireland today, and some of them look west to America. So with a bit of luck and a bit of guidance, you can find a range of tasty Irish beers on the day the rivers run green.
If you’re in New York, head to the historic Fraunces Tavern, now run by the Porterhouse folks from Dublin, which stocks a full range of Porterhouse beers that are brewed in Ireland and shipped to America. Muckle onto a big glass of Wrasslers 4X Stout, or the sweet brine of the Oyster Stout (yes, real Irish oysters are shucked right in the conditioning tanks; none are in your glass), or just enjoy the simple pleasure of the brewery’s pint of Plain.
Much more widely available are the beers from Carlow Brewing in Muine Bheag, County Carlow, in what used to be the heart of Ireland’s barley belt. Like Porterhouse, they were brewing pioneers in Ireland, opening back in 1996. They make the robust and flavorful O’Hara’s Irish Stout, an Irish Red, and an Irish Pale. You may also occasionally find other limited-releases from the brewery, but the Stout and the Red are the most plentiful. They’ve been here—on and off—since the early 2000s. I’ll admit to ordering the O’Hara’s Stout almost any time I see that tap in a bar.
Lough Gill Brewery from Sligo is much younger, founded in late 2016 by James and Valerie Ward. The name comes from their water source, the lake written about by Sligo native W.B. Yeats in his poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” Water is also the context for their leaping salmon logo. “Salmon...flow upstream and against the current,” James said, “which is what craft beer is all about.”
They clearly get the idea of craft beer. The Lough Gill team just got back from a 2,344-mile road trip in the U.S., during which they brewed collaboration beers with eight American breweries. “The mission was to collaborate and brew a beer which can be released in time for St. Patrick’s Day that has as much Irishness as possible in each brew. We brewed each beer with imported malt from Loughran Family Malt here in Ireland,” James said.
The breweries they worked with are Brix City in Little Ferry, New Jersey; Swiftwater in Rochester, New York; Thin Man in Buffalo; Grainworks and Streetside in Cincinnati; Precarious in Williamsburg, Virginia; Big Ugly in Chesapeake, Virginia; Red Bear in Washington, D.C.
Lough Gill’s core beers are Round the Clock, a “breakfast stout” with coffee-chocolate aromas; Wild Irish Gose, a tart and slight salty quencher; Mac Nutty, a Macadamia nut brown ale; and Dark Majik, an 11-percent imperial oatmeal coffee cream stout, which is proof that the Irish can make big beers, too. You can find the beers in New York and New Jersey, with distribution in Maryland, Virginia, and D.C. beginning this month.
The White Hag is another County Sligo brand that I’ve heard good things about, but I couldn’t find any to sample. I asked Bob Coggins, the brewery’s commercial director, where the beer was in America. “Ah, well,” he said, “there’s none right now. We were there, but stopped working with that importer.” That’s a common story with smaller brands and importers, and can be frustrating for drinkers. Coggins said White Hag should be back in the country in a few months, though, so you’ll have to wait a bit for their nature-named beers. (The White Hag is Irish mythology’s equivalent of Mother Nature.) When you do track them down, expect to find Irish spins on American craft standards like IPA, Session IPA, and fruited sours. That’s natural, since the White Hag’s brewer, Joe Kearns, is an Ohio native and got his start brewing at the well-regarded Hoppin’ Frog Brewery in Akron. They should be worth the wait!
Boundary Brewing Cooperative is the lone beer from Northern Ireland, in Belfast, that is available in the U.S. right now. And no, it’s not a reference to the boundary between the North and the Republic, or the “Peace Lines” between the Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods in Belfast. Co-founder Matthew Dick explained that it comes from a Gustave Flaubert quote: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so you can be violent and original in your work.” Who knew Flaubert was inspiration for craft brewers?
Boundary is imported by Shelton Brothers, which gives it a solid pedigree right there. Shelton’s portfolio is carefully selected from small, excellent breweries around the world. They bring in beers like Export Stout, various versions of A Berliner Vice (a lightly sour wheat beer), and a saison called Légalité. Boundary is influenced by Irish tastes, American innovation, and Belgian-French traditions. Look for their brews on draft in specialty beer bars.
I also got an interesting tip from my friend Don Cazentre, an upstate New York newspaperman who I’ve tilted a few jars with over the years. There’s a new Irish beer, Sullivan’s Maltings Ale, brewed in Kilkenny by the Smithwick and Sullivan families. And yes, it’s those Smithwicks, who sold their brewery and red Irish ale brand to Guinness back in the day. Similarly, Sullivan’s is a malty red ale. It’s currently available in Buffalo, Albany, and Syracuse, and though the brewery is straining a bit, they hope to add distribution in Cleveland and Pittsburgh soon.
I’ve saved the biggest beer for last: Murphy’s. The archetypal “other Irish stout,” Murphy’s has a small but loyal fan base that wants no other pint of black beer in front of them. First brewed in 1856 down in Cork, Murphy’s is a familiar nitro pour, but, to me, it has a bit more body and burnt malt tang than its better-known rival. You can find Murphy’s across the country (it’s most common in New York and Pennsylvania) on tap and in cans.
And look, Guinness also makes a variety of beers besides its trademark stout, including the aforementioned red and malty Smithwicks. There’s the bottled and bold Guinness Extra Stout, heavily laden with coffee notes. You can now get the prized and formerly rare Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, the rich and heavy-duty tropical version that is rumored to have aphrodisiacal powers (rumor, strictly rumor). You can still find a few bottles of the limited Guinness 200th Anniversary Stout on store shelves (I intend to go out and do just that after finishing this piece). It’s a bigger and somewhat more piquant version of the standard brew, which celebrates two centuries of Guinness being available in America.
There are also the American-brewed Guinness beers, made at their new facility outside of Baltimore by former Stone brewer Peter Wiens and former Highland brewer Hollie Stephenson. The first one is Guinness Blonde, which includes American hops and malt fermented by the Guinness yeast, but more varieties are coming, including the fruits of a barrel program headed by Sean Brennan, formerly of Jolly Pumpkin. Certainly, not your grandma’s Guinness!
So look, there are lots of options for your St. Patrick’s Day party. And for goodness’ sake, don’t stop drinking all these excellent beers after the holiday is over!
As Lough Gill’s James Ward said, “Irish beer is not just for St. Patrick’s Day! We want to shout it out that Irish craft beer is alive and kicking!”
So get out there and start drinking now!