When you think of Irish beers, especially Irish stouts, you probably think of Guinness. After all, according to YouGov.com, Guinness is the most popular beer in America (Bud Light is the top selling.), so it’s probably the one you think to reach for to drink on St. Patrick’s Day. But, is it actually any good?
We consulted with Belfast-born beer expert and experienced homebrewer Robert Kane to get his thoughts on the best Irish beers available stateside. And, let’s just say the well-known ones didn’t exactly come out on top.
Kane explains: “Guinness, Smithwick’s, Beamish, Kilkenny… they’re all owned by massive brewing conglomerates. It’s functionally the same as Budweiser. It’s like throwing a 4th of July party and only serving Bud Light and saying it’s the cream of American beers. It’s popular in Ireland, like Budweiser is popular in America.”
So, before you go grab a green brew and your shamrock onesie and head out to the bar, you might want to read this list of exploring the Irish beers you can get in America, ranked best to worst. Sláinte!
What To Know Before Drinking an Irish Beer (Or, Frankly, Any Beer)
When was the last time you looked for the “best before” or “brewed on” date statement on a beer bottle or can? Never? According to Kane, the difference between a beer that’s fresh and one that’s past its prime is remarkable.
“The amount of spoiled beers that people are drinking is incredible. People are buying Guinness that is almost two years old and drinking it and thinking that’s what it’s supposed to taste like and it’s really not,” says Kane.
“With Guinness in particular, it’s supposed to be consumed as fresh as humanly possible. The closer it is to the Guinness brewery the better it is. The Open Gate pub that shares the wall with the Guinness brewery is considered to have the best in Ireland.”
What Should an Irish Dry Stout Taste Like?
If you’re just drinking beer, if it tastes good to you, that’s great. We won’t tell everyone you like Icehouse. But, beers come in different styles — IPA, pilsner, gose, etc. – and when it comes to reviewing beers, how well a beer fits into its style category is important.
An Irish Dry Stout is made from roasted barley and should have a dry, roasted flavor, a moderate amount of bitterness, and a flavor somewhat reminiscent of coffee. It has a roasted malt, but it shouldn’t be too sweet, like a brown ale.
If you’re drinking a Guinness and it has oxidized due to heat or it’s sat in your house too long, Kane says “it will produce more of a sherry or wine-like quality because it’s not very hoppy and has a lot of dark malt.” While that doesn’t sound bad, it also means it won’t taste like a proper Irish stout.
The Best Irish Beers Available In America, Ranked Best to Worst
1. O’Hara’s Leann Folláin Extra Irish Stout
“They’re best stout for sure. It’s a textbook Extra Stout that’s heavy on the roast and has an appropriate amount of bitterness and a coffee and chocolatey aroma. It’s made as a craft beverage with high-quality ingredients. It means “wholesome” and is everything a stout should be,” says Kane.
While the Leann Folláin Extra Irish Stout is difficult to find outside of Ireland, O’Hara’s 4.3% ABV standard Irish Stout is relatively easy to find and Kane agrees that it’s one of the best available in America.
Irish Stout Available at Total Wine
2. Porterhouse Brewing Company Oyster Stout
“The Oyster Stout is an excellent beer. People freak out because there are real oysters in it and they expect it to taste like fish and it doesn’t. If you’d didn’t tell people, they wouldn’t guess it under any circumstances. It’s like adding salt to a meal. It’s more robust and it’s got more depth of flavor.”
At press time, this Dubin’s brewery’s classic stout was available, but Porterhouse’s Oyster Stout was curiously missing from their site’s beer lineup. Well, now what are we doing to do with all this minuet sauce?
3. O’Hara’s Irish Red
“If you compare it to Smithwick’s, it has a pronounced bitterness. The barley is much more pronounced, but isn’t sugary. More like a malty biscuity character. It’s tasty. For an America palate, it’s more well received because they’re used to drinking more bitter beers.” O’Hara’s, you had us at biscuits.
4. Smithwick’s Red Ale
“It’s a beer that used to be better. It’s too sweet. They don’t add anywhere near enough hops and it’s not a good example of the style. Also, The w in Smithwick’s is silent.” We knew that. We totally knew that. We didn’t know that.
5. Beamish Irish Stout
“Beamish is from Cork, so it has more of a following in the South. It’s noticeably different in flavor. It has been argued that there is a slightly regional different in the south where the stouts are sweeter. They have almost a milk chocolate note to them, where a traditional stout has a dark chocolate or a coffee.”
6. Murphy’s Irish Stout
“It’s the same deal as Beamish. It’s kind of a nondescript beer. The problem is they’re all macro beers, so it’s like comparing Bud Light and Coors Light.”
Guinness might be the most popular, but it’s far from the best, at least according to Kane. “Guinness is the Budweiser of stouts. It’s weak and flavorless, it’s mass produced, it doesn’t have much character. I would rate it very low in the Irish stouts. It’s designed so you can drink 12 pints of it. It’s a session beer and should be treated as such.”
What about Guinness’ Nitro brew, though? “Nitro beer is very common in Ireland, but it’s trash. It was introduced in the 1950s to replace traditional cask beers. Guinness invented the notion of a nitrogen been to try to mimic the creaminess of a cask beer. It has a creamy effect but it also coats your tongue and reduces the capacity of your tongue to taste beer. You’re getting the aroma of roast barley, but you don’t get enough taste. You’ll notice this with cold brew and nitro cold brew coffee too.”
8. Harp Lager
“Harp belongs in the trash. Just pour it down the drain. It’s everything that is wrong with mass-produced European lager. Even in Ireland, no one drinks harp. It’s popular in the North because it’s from there. People would drink Heineken or Carlsberg and that says a lot because those are not good beers.”
Irish Breweries Worth a Visit
The beers from these breweries are going to difficult — if not impossible — to find in the United States, so good luck finding one for St. Paddy’s Day. However, if you do make it to Ireland, Kane suggests visiting one of these breweries.
The Wicklow Wolf
“They’re focused on four or five variants that are really f***ing good and they’re not just cranking out new recipes every week. Their stout is great.”
“They do a red ale called Rebel Red that’s the craft version of Smithwick’s. It and the O’Hara’s Red were the two best Irish craft reds. They also do a solid stout called Shandon stout. Not my favorite, but solid. But, they’re owned by Molson Coors.”
Wicklow Brewing Company
“They’re in a town called Red Cross. They’re a very small operation, but they do a truly excellent stout. But it’s so small batch, that it’s hard to find, even in Ireland. It’s run by a classically-trained German brewer and who brews traditional German styles of beer and has perfected the Irish stout. It’s unpretentious but delicious.”
Galway Bay Brewery
“They’re one of the original craft breweries in Ireland, like Porterhouse. Their Of Foam and Fury is a variant effort at making an American style beer. Althea is their pale ale, though and it’s excellent.”
Galway Hooker Craft Brewin Co.
“Their original Irish Pale Ale has a great dry European hop quality to it. An American Pale Ale tends to be just bitter, where this has a malt character and a lighter, almost floral hop. It’s a bit like an English pale in many ways.”
“They’re a farmhouse brewery. Literally. There are sheep outside the door. They do an Irish stout that is very good, but they also do some barrel aged stouts. Their Crann Beatha (which means tree of life) is a whiskey barrel-aged stout and is an excellent example of the style. They also have a barleywine that’s aged in whiskey that’s f***ing delicious.”
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