St. Patrick’s Day!
There’s always room for some good Beoir Bhaile
More fun than birthdays, less formal than Thanksgiving, and there’s no pressure to stay up past your bedtime — It’s the best all-around day of the year. Something about the weather melting, cheery reels, and the very real possibility that a well-intentioned stranger will politely invite you to a fist fight. For just a moment, ignore all the cheap Irish cultural stereotypes and ignore all the jaded criticisms that these stereotypes provoke from cultural amnesiacs. The day itself is a magical one.
St. Patrick’s day is wonderful enough on it’s own, but there’s always room for some good beoir bhaile (That’s “homebrew”, as near as I can figure in Gaelic). Brewing for any Holiday allows you to get into the spirit of things a few weeks early, but this is especially true for St. Paddy’s because Irish beer styles are among the easiest to make at home. For many the choice is natural; the well-balanced Irish Red Ale is simple enough to brew and easy enough to share. But adventurous homebrewers can get medieval with extinct styles like the Irish Heavy that have fallen victim to the Macro giants. Meanwhile, the truly esoteric can dive into speculative recipes about the ancient meads and hop-less gruits that Patrick must have enjoyed, since Patrick himself had the sad misfortune to have lived before the use of hops.
But the obvious fact is that any conversation about Irish beer styles ought to begin and end with the Dry Irish Stout. Stouts are one of the best styles for newer brewers and experienced drinkers alike. With the right malts or extract, the black roastiness is easy enough to achieve and since it’s fermented at room temperature, you don’t need any modern temperature control. The beer is jet black (deep ruby, actually) so clarity is not a critical concern, and the bold roast character gives mild off-flavors room to hide unnoticed. It truly is a forgiving beer.
The most challenging aspect of the Dry Irish Stout style is the texture. Guinness, Murphy’s, and Beamish are hardly ever served with straight CO2, but with a CO2/N2 blend. Nitrogen does not absorb as easily as carbon dioxide and is always trying to escape the beer. These classic stouts are also served through a specially designed faucet that forces the beer through a screen, creating millions of extremely tiny bubbles. The effect of this is that famous cascading surge that slowly settles to form the beer’s long-lasting head and creamy mouthfeel. If you’ve ever had a stout served on normal carbonation, it can be somewhat underwhelming, but a good stout on proper nitro makes some of us forget all about other beers.
Guinness obviously agrees that mouthfeel is a critical aspect of their product. Take a tour of their brewery in Dublin and you can get a lesson in “pouring a perfect pint.” But the company has also made special efforts to recreate the nitro effect for the consumer at home. In the late 1970’s, they included a short “surger” syringe in every pack of bottles and cans, and more recently the syringes have been replaced by patented “widgets.” In either case, the principle is the same; beer is taken into the syringe or widget, and forced out quickly through tiny holes, forcing tiny bubbles of gas out of solution. This isn’t difficult to recreate with homebrew, even if under normal carbonation. Marinade injectors work very well as surgers, and they can be purchased cheaply almost anywhere. Just draw some of the beer into the syringe, and force it out again, and wait for the cascade to settle. It’s probably best to use a dedicated syringe for flavor’s sake.
A good cascading head works well on many other beer styles as well, so this doesn’t need to be a St. Paddy’s Day gimmick. Any beer takes on a new character with a “faux nitro foam”, and many British Ales and even a few American IPA’s can be found pouring out of stout faucets.