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March 14, 2013

What Ales You: All that glitters is not Guinness, Harp or Smithwicks

For beer with more direct ties to Ireland, try brews from Porterhouse or O'Hara's.

By TOM ATWELL

Sunday is St. Patrick's Day, and it's a tradition to have an Irish beer to celebrate your Irish heritage -- or the fact that Ireland exists. But to be truly Irish, maybe that drink should NOT be Guinness or its sister brands, Harp and Smithwicks.

Guinness is owned by Diageo, a multinational liquor conglomerate based in Great Britain, and has breweries in 50 countries. Some of the beer in a recent Guinness 12-pack that I bought was brewed in Canada.

I went in search of lesser-known beer with more direct ties to the Emerald Isle, and while at RSVP I came up with two options: The Porterhouse Brewing Company, located in Dublin, and O'Hara's, brewed by Carlow Brewing Company in Carlow, Ireland. Both were founded in 1996.

Porterhouse bills itself as "Ireland's largest genuine Irish brewery." I am not sure what that means, but the beers were pretty good -- if expensive. RSVP had three different Porterhouse brews: A Red Ale, Wrasslers XXXX Full Stout and an Oyster Stout. Each one costs $3.59 for the skimpy European 11.2-ounce bottle.

All three of these beers are bottle conditioned and unpasteurized, and they come with an unusual metal bottle cap that you open by pulling a small metal ring.

The company website lists a lot of other beers and says they are all made with barley from Althy in County Kildare, without any additives or enhancing chemicals.

Unless you count oysters.

My favorite and wife Nancy's least favorite of the three beers was Oyster Stout, at 5.2 percent alcohol. The oysters are shucked into the conditioning tank, and while the beer does not taste like fish or anything like that, it does have an interesting sweetness.

It's smooth, lightly carbonated with a small head, and has a heavier body than the other two beers from this brewery -- but not as heavy as draught Guinness. It has a good roasted malt flavor, and enough hops to be interesting.

I really wanted to like the Wrasslers XXXX Full Stout at 5.7 percent alcohol, because it is based on an old recipe favored by Michael Collins. While I liked the flavor, which was full of roasted malt and hops, the texture was so thin that it seemed unbalanced.

The most balanced and sophisticated was the Porterhouse Red at only 4.2 percent alcohol. It has fruit and caramel flavors in the malt, and just an undercurrent of malt spiciness. As in a great wine, the flavors changed as you drank it, letting the beer move around in your mouth.

THE O'HARA'S beers cost $7.99 for a four-pack (again with the 11.2-ounce bottles), and are good but a little bit more traditional than the ones from Porterhouse.

We tried the Leann Follain Extra Irish Stout, the Irish Stout, the Irish Red and the Pale Ale. One consistency of the brand -- all of them had it, and I have never had it in other Irish beers -- is a smokiness in the finish. I kind of liked that part of it.

The best of the four was the Leann Follain Extra Irish Stout at 6 percent alcohol, which had a strong roasted malt flavor with a bit of chocolate to go with the smokiness. It had a wonderfully red-tinged black color and a good cream head. The mouthfeel wasn't as creamy as I expected in an extra stout, and that was the only drawback.

The Irish Stout looks about the same as the Extra Stout, but is a bit milder in flavor all around. It has a creamier mouthfeel, and is only 4.3 percent alcohol.

The Irish Red is a good, traditional Irish Red, also 4.3 percent alcohol, with a dark reddish-brown color and a good crisp head. It has a bit of coffee in the smell along with the roastiness.

I am not a huge fan of Irish pale ales, but O'Hara's Pale Ale is a bit better -- leaning toward an English IPA rather than a pale ale. It has some citrusy notes as well as a good hops bite, and comes in at 5.2 percent alcohol.

ALTHOUGH I dismissed Guinness at the start of this column, you probably will drink some over the weekend, so I should say something about it.

First, the Guinness 12-pack -- which was on sale at Shaw's for $12.99 -- included some Guinness Generous Ale, which was pretty good as a relaxing kind of beer, low in hops and rich in malt. It is 5.6 percent alcohol, and has a rich head.

About Guinness itself: If you are in a bar that has it on draught, buy it. It's creamy, smooth, malty and mild, and only 4.2 percent alcohol, so you can drink it all day if you pace yourself and have some bangers and mash to go along with it. It is never as good in any bottled or canned format as it is when drawn in a bar.

If you are buying it to drink at home, go with the Guinness Extra Stout in a regular bottle at 6 percent alcohol. It's the one that was first imported to the United States and what I am used to. I just like the richness of it.

The Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, which was also included in the 12-pack, is 7.2 percent alcohol and gets great reviews on all the beer websites. But for me, it is a bit over the top -- with stronger flavors everywhere.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer living in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or:

tomatwell@me.com

 

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