I wrote about blind tasting last week -- how it's a humbling, rewarding learning experience and so forth.
But there's certainly merit in knowing what you're tasting going in. Which is why, in the spirit of some "palate education" (as well as a tip o' the hat to St. Patrick's Day) I thought I'd taste a couple Irish brews against similar counterparts from other parts of the world -- namely, this side of the Atlantic.
Comparing and contrasting styles proved to be an interesting exercise. And while I did so by myself in the comfort of my own home, it's far more fun to do with friends at your favourite pub -- especially this St. Paddy's Day weekend. So stop swirling and sniffing, get ye to your local watering hole and raise a pint.
Just NO GREEN BEER.
Two of the most popular styles of beer in Ireland are the Irish ale and the stout:
While deeper in colour than many counterparts from other areas of the world, Irish ales are relatively light and crisp. They bring little in the way of hops, meaning they're a bit rounder and softer than their North American counterparts.
SMITHWICK'S DRAUGHT PREMIUM IRISH ALE (County Kilkenny, Ireland -- $2.99/500ml can, Liquor Marts and some vendors)
Toffee and caramel notes make way for modest floral and spice notes on the nose. It's a relatively crisp ale -- especially given the darker copper colour -- that's not overly complicated. The toffee, toasted barley and nut notes on the palate reflect the contrast of crispness and a softer, rounder mouthfeel. It's not the most complex beer going -- it's Ireland's biggest ale, a mass-produced, commercial brew (albeit still miles ahead of the most popular brews on this side of the pond). Still, decent stuff.
GRANVILLE ISLAND LIMITED RELEASE IRISH RED (Vancouver -- $5.53/650ml bottle, Liquor Marts and beyond)
There are bigger, brighter hops than in the Smithwick's -- aromatically they provide that bitter herbal note often found in North American ales but rarely in European brews. This B.C. version of an Irish ale does well to balance that ramped-up crispness with the remarkable back-end smoothness on the palate. It manages to marry the traditional Irish ale characteristics with a decidedly West Coast, hoppier style -- with delicious results.
Nobody does stout quite like Ireland. Irish stouts bring great depth of flavour, yet are never over the top when it comes to alcohol content (typically clocking in at under 4.5 per cent). Interestingly for the calorie-conscious, stouts are often lower in calories than many other brews (including "light" beer, which usually refers to the taste).
GUINNESS DRAUGHT (Dublin, Ireland -- $3.17/440ml can, Liquor Marts and some vendors)
Deep black in colour, with a fairly pale, fine head, Guinness is easily the best-known stout in the world. It's probably somewhat blasphemous to be tasting this from a can, but setting up my laptop in a bar with a bunch of fresh-poured pints is a recipe for disaster. There's a decidedly oatey note on the nose, with a hint of cocoa and toastiness -- honestly, think oatmeal chocolate chip cookie. It's an exceptionally soft, creamy stout, and more of those toasted-oat notes come through on the palate. Guinness probably deserves a proper pour at a pub, so I won't judge this too harshly -- it's decent stuff.
O'HARA'S IRISH STOUT (County Carlow, Ireland -- $3.68/500ml bottle, Liquor Marts and beyond)
The O'Hara's is similarly dark, but the head here is slightly darker beige. Aromatically, there's a lot more milk chocolate and mocha than on the Guinness -- the intensity is definitely ramped up. The toffee/chocolate/Tootsie Roll notes on the palate make this a bit heavier/chewier than the Guinness, and certainly more intense. The Guinness is decidedly silky on the palate, while the O'Hara's is a bit rougher around the edges -- in a good way.
FORT GARRY KONA IMPERIAL STOUT (Winnipeg -- $6.38/650ml bottle, Liquor Marts)
It's nice to see Fort Garry's successful initial launch of the Kona last year resulted in this stout becoming part of their regular rotation. This is the darkest stout of the three -- even the head is the medium-brown colour of chocolate ice cream. Chocolate-covered espresso bean notes are front and centre on the nose -- smelling this beer is honestly like sticking your nose in a bag of 'em. Not surprising, as over 22 kilograms of Hawaiian coffee beans are added to the brew.
Like the Granville Island ale, it's much more intense than its Irish counterparts, with those chocolate-covered espresso bean notes gradually making way for mocha and herbal flavours. At 6.5 per cent alcohol it's a full 2+ per cent higher than both the O'Hara's and the Guinness, in part contributing to the remarkable intensity of this beer. Fans of the traditional Irish stout may find the Kona a bit too intense -- I love it.
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @bensigurdson