Story last updated at 3/12/2014 - 2:26 pm
Depending on how you approach it, Saint Patrick's Day - which happens on March 17 every year - is either one of the world's most popular binge drinking days or it's a celebration that commemorates Saint Patrick and the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. I'd never heard about the arrival of Christianity in Ireland until I looked up the history of Saint Patrick's Day to support this column, so you know where I stand on the issue.
Still, the event has deep cultural roots in Ireland where it started as an official Christian feast day before morphing into a party and big boost in business for the average publican and grog shop owner. It remains one of the most recognized celebrated days in the history of the world, so it's got some staying power. The original tie to consuming alcoholic beverages in celebration of the day came from the early days when - at least for the church-going - Lenten restrictions on eating and drinking alcohol were lifted for the day.
Can you say "party?"
I guess there's nothing like tossing back a couple of pints (or more) when it's sanctified by the church, right?
Old Saint Pat himself was born in the fourth century in what was then Roman Britain, and eventually enslaved somewhere in Ireland. Apparently, God told him to flee the coop, which he did and jumped a ship back to Britain and studied to be a priest. Somewhere along the line, he got wrapped up with some bishop who convinced him to go back to Ireland and convert the Irish from their native polytheism to Christianity.
Urban legend says the whole shamrock thingie came from Patrick's use of the three-leafed green plant to explain the concept of the Christian Trinity to the people of Ireland. Today, Saint Patrick's Day celebrations are awash in the color green, but even as far back as the 17th century, traditional celebrations included the "wearing of green" or the adornment with shamrocks. The most common symbol associated with celebrations today remains the shamrock.
The whole drinking thing apparently got out of hand over the years and an Irish member of the parliament ordered that pubs be closed on March 17 to try to tone things down. This got repealed in the 1970s, and I can't imagine the drunken melee that ensued in Ireland that year.
I poked around at my favorite grog shop recently to see what I might find directly from Ireland, or at least with an Irish theme. I didn't have to look very hard:
Undoubtedly the most recognized beer associated with Saint Patrick's Day is Guinness Stout, the most widely recognized stout in the world. Although the Guinness brand is produced in close to 60 countries, the most famous is Ireland where the brewery was born and still exists at St. James's Gate in Dublin.
Simply put, a properly poured and served pint of Guinness is a work of art in the glass. The modern service includes pushing the beer through a special tap that uses nitrogen instead of carbon dioxide, which is used in most other draught applications. The combination of the special tap and the nitrogen gas, which produces smaller, tighter bubbles, results in an upside-down waterfall effect when the beer is decanted. The resulting creamy, tan tight-as-a-drum head is legendary.
Properly served, at least a quarter of an inch of head should remain on the beer to the bottom of the glass. Guinness is often nicknamed "mother's milk" in Ireland due to the beer's almost dairy cream texture. Guinness is a dry stout, and despite the common misconception that beers are stronger as they get darker, this almost black beer (Guinness Draught) weighs in at a paltry 4.2 percent alcohol by volume, which is pretty tame by modern beer-drinking standards.
Another misconception is that stouts are horribly bitter and acrid. Well, they can be, but pick up a can of Guinness Draught and you'll be rewarded with a tame brew that delivers elegance in simplicity with telltale roast malt elements, some light coffee notes and just a delicate touch of fruitiness and hops in a soft, incredibly easy drinking beer.
For an alternative for this legendary great, grab a Murphy's Irish Stout. This one's produced in Cork, Ireland and is even lighter than Guinness draught at 4.0 percent alcohol by volume. It's also a dry stout.
Expect the same roasted malt character in the nose with a touch more chocolate essence than the Guinness delivers. The hops are background in both aroma and flavor in this one.
The flavor is also quite mild and not acrid or bitter. Coffee notes come forth in the taste as well and I get even a background touch of licorice, although anise isn't an ingredient in the beer. The texture is smooth and creamy as well, making this one another decidedly easy drinker where more than one sample is easily appropriate.
If you're not into dark beer, there are some alternatives. Smithwick's Imported Premium Irish Ale, another Guinness product, pours light mahogany and beautifully clear in the glass. A thin, paper-white head covers the beer and sticks around for the duration, leaving nice lacing as the beer is consumed. Aromatically, expect a light malty presence, some nuttiness, a touch of bread and just a kiss of hop aroma.
Across the palate, the beer's solid malt foundation brags on itself and is accented with hints of caramel, the same nuttiness hinted at in the nose and just enough bitterness to keep the beer from being overly malt forward. It's a pleasant, easy drinker, but not my favorite in the Irish beer lineup.
Another Saint Patrick's Day treat on the lighter side for me is Wexford's Irish Style Crème Ale Draught brewed by Greene King/Morland Brewery of St. Edmonds, Suffolk, England. The aroma is of sweet, creamy toffee and is one of my favorite aspects of the beer. Again, the hops are in the background in both aroma and taste. The flavor is a swirling mixture of light cereal grain, smooth cream and toffee and just a touch of burnt toffee essence in the end. The beer's not at all bitter, although just a touch of hop bitterness shows up at the end, but is no distraction from the overall excellent drinking experience. It's just a touch heavier than its counterparts.
If you live in Sitka or are headed that way, plan on attending the Saturday, March 15 St. Paddy's Day Celebration at Baranof Island Brewing Company from 3-8 p.m. Enjoy corned beef brisket, stewed cabbage and roasted red Irish potatoes along with a pint of the debuting Single Speed Stout at this pay-as-you go event.
Get your green on, grab your favorite stout and celebrate Saint Patrick's Day either piously or with abandon; the choice is yours.
James "Dr. Fermento" Roberts is a drinker with a writing problem and contributing columnist to the Capitol City Weekly, Anchorage Press and Celebrator Beer News. Fermento is also the executive director of the Alaska Brewer's Guild and welcomes your feedback and ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.