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Red Dawn: A Red Ale Revolution

Posted By Kevin McLaughlin on May 2, 2018

When people think of a beer style that represents Ireland almost to a person they will think of Stout/Porter, but despite being synonymous with our ancient island, it is by origin a city of London style.

A true and sometimes maligned Irish brew style is the Red Ale.

A Red Ale is similar in many ways to a pale ale or English bitter, it leans heavy on the malt for flavour with hops added early in the boil for bitterness but little to no hop flavour or aroma. It's eponymous red hue comes from an addition of roasted barley to the malt bill. This not only adds the colour but gives a caramel and biscuit flavour that sets it apart from its pale ancestors.

The style is at it's heart an easy drinking session beer, lightly carbonated, medium to low ABV and subtle flavour profile. Most famously brewed by Smithwick's, Kilkenny and being a northerner I can't leave out Caffrey's.

When the craft beer movement eventually landed in Ireland, many of the new microbreweries started off fairly conservatively with their core range of beer styles. What became known as "the holy trinity", a stout, a pale and a red.

This tactic may have been misguided as it's not possibly the best business model to dedicate a third of your core brewing to a style that at the time made up less than a third of beer sales. Possibly because of lack of sales or just simply a more diverse direction in brewing, we saw fewer Red Ales on the market.

But just as the craft brewers took traditional brews that had been blandly watered down by the macro brewers for years and re-energised them with new hops and experimental flavours, they eventually turned their eyes to that old stalwart, the red. Beers like Rascals Big Hop Red have added late addition hops, which add citrus fruit and pine notes to make a lighter more refreshing beer.

Kinnegar's special Bucket Brigade, goes in a different direction by adding Rye to the mash bill as well as extra hops, this gives the beer a distinct pepperiness on top of the hop flavours. A higher ABV makes this less sessionable than a traditional red.

Last years collaboration of Hillstown Brewery and Lobik, 3 Bears was one of the best beers released in 2017 and my personal favourite new wave red ale. Again it's hopped for extra flavour but the big thing for me was the mouthfeel, it was silky and coated all the way down. It too had a particularly high ABV, which again sets it out from the old school reds.

Not forgetting Eight Degrees Sunburnt Irish Red Ale. Clearly the Kiwi brewers are having a laugh at the typical Irishmans reaction to our rare summer sun with that name.

A cracking Red, sweet malted caramel on the front and a piney hop finish. This beer is already making a name for itself in America, where ironically the Irish Red Ale style has had much more success in the last few decades than on native soil. Traditionalists need not despair though because the recent resurgence in red ales has also included some of the best traditional reds brewed in Ireland in a very long time.

As I mentioned, a red ale is a simple creature in many ways but that doesn't mean it's easy to get right. With no hoppiness or other additions to disguise any off flavours, brewers have no where to hide and have to really be on their game to nail the style just right. With breweries like Bog Hopper, Woodkeys, Sullivan's and Ballykilcavan all doing exceptionally great reds at the minute, we are spoiled for choice.

My own personal favourite though has to be Killanny Red from Brehon's Brewhouse. For me it's as good as it gets, rich malt biscuit and caramel notes, with a crisp dry finish, a perfect example of the traditional Irish Red Ale.

Whilst most people welcome the new takes on an old style, there is some debate over what we should actually call these new variants. For example Kinnegar's Bucket Brigade that I mentioned previously, labels itself as a "Red Rye IPA", which pretty much covers all bases but shows you how difficult it is to define these new beers.

The term Red IPA is sometimes used or Hoppy Red. Call it what you will I think it's right that we differentiate between the traditional style and this new wave, so that the drinker knows what to expect and can tailor their choice to suit their tastes.

No matter what you want to drink or what you want to call it, we are currently spoiled for choice in Ireland and the minute