Irish red ale, or simply red ale, is a top-fermented beer with an amber, red or copper hue, moderate strength (typically 4-6% ABV), a malt-forward profile, and a relatively low or moderate amount of hop character along with a low hop bitterness (typically in the 15- to 30-IBU range). Some versions may contain a slight buttery character, though diacetyl bombs are not appropriate. Yeast esters are mild. Texture/mouthfeel is smooth with a moderate level of carbonation. These beers are sometimes brewed as lagers, but the few lager versions out there are usually nothing more than international amber lagers.
There are many red ales from Irish breweries, including Smithwick’s, Beamish, and Murphy’s, but there are many more Irish-style red ales made by American breweries.
Traditional Irish examples are fairly neutral in general, with relatively low levels of hops. Many are very similar to English bitters, but with less bitterness and a lower level of yeast esters.
American craft versions are often hoppier and more alcoholic than traditional Irish versions, and they are often brewed with non-traditional hops — i.e., American hops instead of UK hops.
Some American variants are essentially amber ales with a bit more coloring from the addition of roasted malt. But on the other end of the style’s spectrum, some are more in line with American-style IPAs, but with a slight caramel-toffee-toast flavor, as well as a reddish color.
Generally speaking, red ales tend to be easy-drinking beers with notes of biscuits, grains, slight roast, caramel and toffee. Hop flavors and aromas are usually subtle or nonexistent, and hop bitterness is often mild to moderate.
Even though these beers tend to be malt forward and somewhat sweet, they can finish curiously dry. This dryness is created partially from the hop bitterness, but also from the small amount of highly kilned roasted grains.
The roasted barley also contributes to the beer’s signature red hue, in addition to the use of crystal/caramel malts. Other ingredients often include malts, hops and yeast strains from the UK or Ireland.
In Bellingham, you can find many local and regional red ales, sometimes year round. Here are some good ones to try:
Aslan Brewing’s Northwest Red Ale (6.2%, 26 IBUs) is a balanced beer made with dark crystal malt, roasted barley and a bit of black malt. As the name suggests, this beer is seasoned with Northwest hop varieties — about a half dozen of them, in fact.
Kulshan Brewing’s Red Cap Irish Style Red Ale (5.25%, 25 IBUs), which is now available in cans, is a toasty brew made with a variety of malts, including crystal, Munich, roasted barley and flaked barley, and it is hopped with Apollo, Cascade and Willamette.
Boundary Bay Brewery’s Irish Red (4%, 26 IBUs) is a perennial favorite that surfaces just in time for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. This is a smooth, clean, malty and highly quaffable brew, perfect for all your St. Paddy’s festivities.
Silver City Brewery’s Ridgetop Red (6%, 15 IBUs) is brewed with Liberty hops from the Northwest and pale, Munich, light crystal, Carafa and two types of wheat malts, resulting in a tasty, balanced and highly sessionable beer.
Hop Valley Brewing’s Red Ale (6%, 80 IBUs) pushes the style into the “India red ale” category. The brewery describes it as “a Northwest-style American red ale with a complex malty backbone balanced by a generous amount of hops.” It is also dry hopped, giving it “a floral hoppy finish.”
Diamond Knot Brewing’s Slane’s Irish-Style Red Ale (5.6%, 30 IBUs) is a creamy-smooth red with a bold maltiness that exudes caramel. Not surprisingly, this tasty seasonal has garnered a cult following over the years. As an aside, Slane’s should not be confused with the Irish toast, “sláinte,” which translates to “good health,” as this beer was actually named after the grandfather of one of Diamond Knot’s founders (who happened to be a brewer for Pabst). But even if you make that mistake, it’s a fitting one because Slane’s is definitely a worthy toasting beer.