St. Patrick's Day is tough on a civic-minded, humanist boozebag. I love New Year's Eve and Thanksgiving Morning and Arbor Weekend and all the other "amateur hours" that too many self-proclaimed sophisticates haughtily dismiss, but Paddy's Day comes soaked with complications beyond the rivers of glitter and puke that flow through the streets of whichever part of your town is lousy with 22-year-olds. And it pains me to say this, because I hate being a townie exceptionalist, but the March 17 situation is especially tricky in Boston.
St. Patrick's Day is an actual municipal holiday here. It's conveniently rebranded as Evacuation Day and purports to have something to do with the Revolutionary War, but in reality it's just an extra day off when some of our more embarrassing citizens organize a hateful parade. Other cities have parades that are just as discriminatory, but they're not facilitated by paid vacation days for government employees. And other cities don't call their basketball team the Celtics. Irishness is still a big deal here, so the petty bigotry of the parade organizers matters more than it should.
BUT. St. Patrick's Day's all right if you ignore the sectarian nonsense. If you're an open-minded, cabin-feverish drinker looking for an excuse to dip a frostbitten toe into impolite society and give the liver a workout before this winter's NCAA tournament kicks up next week, you should get yourself into a nice Irish bar sometime between now and Tuesday morning.
The Irish beer market is less vibrant than national reputation would suggest; now that Diageo owns Guinness and every other damn thing, there's not a ton of room for new guys to pop up. In fact, six of the 11 beers on the list below are Guinness products. That's sort of lame, but also sort of OK in the end because Guinness makes pretty good beer. Let's get a-rankin'!
11. Guinness Black Lager
This deceptively thin gruel was introduced in 2010 in a desperate attempt to attract the young male market that was turning away from Guinness's traditionally heartier ales. Chasing the post-adolescent bro demographic will screw you every time; this Coors Dark tastes like "Family Guy" juice: Watery nonsense striving for edginess, with roasted barley standing in for the talking dog. The bitter malt and light body clash in a way that's supposed to be interesting but is instead merely dissonant.
10. Harp Lager
Great news, boozers! We're already moved into the good-beer portion of the list. I hadn't had a Harp in several years and my expectations were low, but it's much better than I remembered. It starts somewhat ominously as a pale yellow pour with a thick white head and the barely perceptible smell of a beer that is just striving to sneak its inoffensive way into the ranks of the not-sucky. But the meek presentation is deceptive, as Harp is the rare macro-lager with three distinct flavor phases. Sweet bready grain mellows into a rich, almost buttery middle, with a small sucker punch of lemony hop bitterness at the end. This is quintessentially Irish in the way it says, "Hi, I'm simple, but not really. I love you, I truly do, and I mean no harm, oh by the way here's a smack in the back of the head." Harp'll do.
9. Murphy's Pub Draught Irish Stout
Damn it, this was disappointing. Murphy's is very similar to Guinness Draught and I wanted it to be better, because wouldn't it be interesting to prefer the lesser-known version? But no, despite being a better story (that story being, in short, that it's not Guinness), Cork's rendition of the Dublin-based behemoth isn't a better beer. Murphy's is plenty good enough for the likes of me, but it's milder and less complex than Guinness, with a thinner body that gives it an ugly resemblance to Anheuser-Busch's mercifully discontinued Bare Knuckle Stout.
8. O'Hara's Irish Stout
Carlow's version of a traditional dry Irish stout looks just like the others but is distinguished by the persistence of the typical roasted coffee element and a very long, dry finish that's pleasantly hoppy for the style. I wouldn't argue with anyone who prefers this to Guinness Draught.
7. Smithwick's Premium Irish Ale
This unassuming red ale makes a better-than-Bass base for those who seek an all-Irish black-and-tan, and though it lacks any distinctive qualities, the whole package adds up to a pretty good beer for a long day of drinking. There's a hint of warm, dark fruit to the sweet toffee malt, which is kept in check by a finish that's dry without being dirty or abrupt in the manner of so many crappy American red ales.
6. Porterhouse Wrasslers XXXX Stout
This is an interesting beer, with a slight (and perhaps accidental) whiff of sour cherries off-setting the thick, bittersweet molasses flavor. It reminds me of a good American stout, with a little more alcohol (5.7 percent by volume) than traditional Irish versions. Wrasslers is a very good beer that gets downgraded slightly for tasting boozier than it is and for costing twice as much as the other stouts on the list.
5. Guinness Draught
Guinness Draught claims best-in-breed for having a thicker head than Murphy's and O'Hara's and for a two-tone flavor profile of sweet caramel along with slightly bitter roasted coffee and chocolate. It's predictable and ubiquitous and also the best beer a lot of people ever drink.
4. Porterhouse Brewing Company An Brain Blasta (The Tasty Drop)
The label says this is "one for the aficionados," which is a great slogan for an almost-great beer. The Tasty Drop is a 7 percent ABV strong ale with a fruity malt base suggestive of red grapes and plums complemented by Galena, Nugget, and East Kent Goldings hops. The predominant fruit flavors are joined by a small dose of deluxe caramel, like the stuff you get not-quite-enough of in the middle of a $7 candy bar, plus a toasted toffee note. This is an ambitious and well-made beer that happens not to be brewed to my taste—but, fuck me, you know?
3. Guinness Foreign Extra
Diageo has only been sending the Foreign Extra to the U.S. for a few years, and it's about damn time. This is said to be the standard Extra Stout with bonus hops added to help it withstand shipping; it's the stout version of the IPA creation legend. This indeed tastes very similar to the Extra, but with the noticeably beefier hops hiding the coffee flavor. I like a bitter stout, but this might be too much, since in this case the hops don't add fruit or flowers or any of the other pretty things that make, say, an excellent West Coast IPA both bitter and complex.
2. O'Hara's Irish Red
Oh man, this is one hell of a beer. It smells like sweet fruit, maybe maraschino cherries or raspberries. It's bright and lively, with the fruit complemented by a touch of milk chocolate and honest caramel—not as fancy as in the An Brain Blasta, but not no Rolo bullshit, either. The finish is dry and assertive, with just enough hops to keep everything on the up and up. This is by far the best red ale I've had.
1. Guinness Extra Stout
My favorite part of holiday drinking is smartening up my morning coffee with a business-class measure of brandy; Guinness Extra Stout tastes like some kindly beer fairy's already taken care of that chore. The strong good-coffee bitterness from the roasted barley is balanced by a faint but sufficient sweet raisin kick before it closes with a fresh new brand of bitterness from the hops. This is excellent beer.
Regardless of our positions on the Irish and their holidays, we decent folk are united by our love of drinking. To boycott St. Patrick's Day would be to cut your tongue off to spite your beer. I think? A bit of a fog has rolled across my desk—those 11 beers didn't just rank themselves—but you know what I mean. I mean you should go out and have yourself an Irish beer this weekend. Gone are the days when Guinness was the best beer at the bar, but Irish brews are still damn fine stuff almost across the board (stupid Black Lager).
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Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and has visited all of the other New England states, including, come to think of it, Vermont. Find him on Twitter @WillGordonAgain