Irish Red is an refreshing, popular beer style closely related to English Bitters. This week, we’re going to take a look at Irish Red ale recipes and how to brew this beer at home. The style has quite a few variants, but is known most for its deep red color and mild flavor.
The history of Irish Red Ale is difficult to trace. Many Irish Ales made in Ireland are closely related to English Bitters, and some authors say characterize Irish Red as a sub-category of English Bitters or Pale Ales. Others believe Irish Red stands as its own distinct style. Some Irish Ales are lagers, though they share many of the same characteristics as ales. Adding to confusion, breweries in America have taken American Amber Ales and added coloring or a bit of roasted malt and called that Irish Red as well.
Despite the variations and complex origins, the BJCP style guide and other organizations now recognize Irish Red Ale as its own distinct style of beer. The recognized style most closely matches the Irish Red Ales brewed in Ireland such as Smithwick’s, Beamish Red Ale, Caffrey’s Irish Ale, Goose Island Kilgubbin Red Ale, and Murphy’s Irish Red.
The Irish Red Ale Style
Irish Reds have virtually no hop aroma low to moderate hop flavor, and have low to moderate malty aroma and flavor. They have a very clean finish with a low buttery or toffee flavor. The use of roasted barley for coloring often results in a slight roasted finish and also creates a dry finish for the beer. Unlike English Ales, Irish Red has no ester (fruity) flavors. Some Irish Reds are fermented with lager yeast, but again they have a very clean finish, low diacytl flavors and should exhibit a clean finish.
Overall the impression is slightly on the malty side, with a clean slightly dry finish. The body and mouthfeel should be light to medium. Highly alcoholic versions may have a slight warmth. The beer should be easy to drink.
Original gravity is in the 1.044-1.060 range and final gravity in the 1.010 to 1.014 range for an alcohol level of 4-6% ABV. Bitterness is in the low to moderate 17-28 IBU range. The color is a moderate 9-18 SRM, though it should have a distinctive reddish hue (provided by a small amount of roast malt).
Brewing an Irish Red Ale
Irish Red starts with traditional Irish or UK barley grains, with English or Irish Pale Malt making the vast bulk of the grain bill. A moderate amount of light colored Caramel/Crystal malt (10-40 L) is often used to make up 5-10% of the grain bill to aid in body and head retention.
The key malt for a red ale, however, is roast barley which is added in very small quantities for coloring. It is the roast barley (not black patent malt or chocolate malt) that gives an Irish Red its traditional deep red color. Care must be taken to add just enough to color the beer, as you don’t want the roasted flavor to be a major component for flavoring. For 5 gallons, as little as a few ounces is sufficient to color the beer.
Some Irish Red recipes use other specialty malts such as Special B or CaraMunich. Caramunich malt is a darker variation of Munich malt and adds malty flavor as well as a slight reddish hue. If used, it should only be used in very small quantities (along with roasted malt) as too much malt flavor could overwhelm the style. Special B malt is a very dark crystal malt from Belgium with a heavy caramel and raisin like flavors. In my opinion, Special B is not appropriate for the Irish Red style as it has too much caramel flavor and darkens rather than reddens the beer. Dark malts such as chocolate and black patent malts are also inappropriate in an Irish Red as they tend to create a dark brown (not red) beer with too much caramel flavor.
Moderate alpha English hops are traditionally used for bittering. Irish or English ale yeast is appropriate, though care must be made to avoid English yeasts with excessive esters (fruitiness). If lager yeast is used, it should be selected for a clean flavor profile.
A light to medium body mash profile is used for all grain brews, and fermentation temperature should be selected to provide moderate attenuation. Irish Red Ales are moderately carbonated and sometimes served cold to accentuate the slight roast character.
Irish Red Recipes
Here are a few sample recipes from the BeerSmith recipe archive:
- Big Head Irish Red (Extract)
- Joe’s Irish Red (All Grain)
- Killkenny Irish Red (Extract)
- Shades of Red (All Grain)
I hope you enjoyed this article on Irish Red – its a great smooth-drinking beer style. For a weekly article on beer styles and brewing techniques, consider signing up for my email newsletter or take a look at my home brewing book. I’ll be back next week with another podcast episode.
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