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By Greg Kitsock
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Whether you plan to celebrate by belting out "The Irish Rover" with a crowd of revelers at a pub or by renting "The Quiet Man" and relaxing with a loved one at home, St. Patrick's Day calls for a sociable beer.

Irish red ale is perfect for such an evening of friendly elbow bending. Moderate in alcohol content and hopped with restraint, the brews get their ruddy tinge, which can range from pinkish-amber to deep mahogany, from specially roasted grains.

Smithwick's Ale is the exemplar for this style, which is more widely imitated in America than on the Emerald Isle. Although it wasn't available in the United States until 2004, Smithwick's predates Guinness by nearly half a century. John Smithwick founded the brewery in 1710 on the ruins of an old abbey in Kilkenny. Guinness, however, bought into the operation in the 1950s and today uses the plant primarily to brew Budweiser (gasp!) for the Irish market, according to Guinness brewmaster Fergal Murray. The Smithwick's we drink here is brewed in Dundalk, in the north of Ireland.

Unlike Guinness stout, which is the same on both sides of the Atlantic, the American Smithwick's is brewed a little darker than the Irish version and to a slightly higher alcohol content. (The export Smithwick's measures 4.5 percent alcohol by volume, a bit less than a Bud; the Irish version is only 3.8 percent.) "You can't brew beer under 4 percent for the North American market, not when you're up against Bass," Murray says. Unmalted roasted barley -- with a lighter roast than that used in Guinness -- colors Smithwick's a brilliant copper, like a shiny penny. The beer has a bready aroma and a sweet, toasty flavor.

Carlow Brewing Co., a microbrewery in Carlow, in southeast Ireland, dates only from 1998, but the Web site says this traditional barley- and hop-growing area boasted five breweries in the 19th century. Its O'Hara's Red is deeper-hued and richer than Smithwick's, with a smooth caramel sweetness and a coffeeish aftertaste.

Trinity Ale is bottled for Trader Joe's by the Goose Island Beer Co. in Chicago. The russet brew was the most complex and interesting of the beers I sampled, with a flowery hop nose, notes of licorice and coffee and a hint of pumpernickel from the use of a little malted rye in the grist. And it's a bargain at less than $6 a six-pack.

American brewers, among them Al Marzi of Boston's Harpoon Brewery, often dispense with the roasted barley, achieving the same ruddy hue through caramel or crystal malt.

Marzi's Harpoon Hibernian Style Ale, a January-to-March seasonal, has a reddish-amber color, a sugary sweetness upfront followed by a light toastiness and a crisp, fruity finish that Marzi calls "a signature note of our yeast."

At the Rock Bottom Brewery in Arlington, recently hired brewer Chris Rafferty is using an Irish red recipe for the brewpub's annual Fire Chief Ale. Twenty-five cents from the sale of every pint will benefit Aluminum Cans for Burnt Children, which raises money to send young burn victims to a special camp. Rafferty will tap the beer at 7 p.m. Thursday; the evening also will include a silent auction and other festivities. (The Rock Bottom in Bethesda will host a similar night tonight.)

Rafferty used two kinds of caramelized malt and three hop varieties. He describes the beer as "a little more subtle in malt and hop" than the brewpub's mainstay Radio Tower Red. "It's easily a three- to four-pint beer," he assures. In other words, enough for some serious socializing.

Greg Kitsock can be reached at

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