If St. Patrick’s Day is a day when we’re supposed to drink too much and celebrate our Irish heritage, then that’s basically every day of my year. But for those of you who reserve your appreciation for all things Irish to just one day out of 365, I kindly ask that you at least make good choices in your alcoholic beverages. As the great beer columnist Joe Sixpack recently put it, Killian’s Irish Red ale is neither Irish nor an ale. Drinking Killian's on St. Patrick's Day is like listening to the Dropkick Murphys when you could be listening to The Pogues. Of course you can never go wrong with a Guinness, and I’ve been known to knock back a Smithwick’s or two or six at a St. Patrick’s get-together. But there’s an Irish red brewed right here in these United States that beats the pants out of Smithwick’s. And that’s Conway’s Irish Ale, made by the fine folks at Cleveland’s Great Lakes Brewing Company. If you happen to live in an area where Conway’s is readily available, you can bet it’ll be fresher (and tastier) than any Smithwick’s you’ll find on the shelves. And it’s not like I don’t like Smithwick’s – but I love Conway’s! It’s one of my favorite beers, period, and the Irish red is one of my favorite beer styles. It’s kind of an underrated beer style. Irish reds are not particularly hoppy or in any way “bold” enough to get beer geeks worked up. But that is largely by design, as the style is meant to be mild. It’s a blue collar beer, ya know? But so what? There’s nothing wrong with a mild flavor if it’s done well. Irish reds generally have a toasted malt character that I really enjoy. They go down easy and pair perfectly with dishes like bangers & mash and shepherd’s pie (which I’d eat every night of the year if I could!). I always love craft brewers that are willing to make “better” versions of mainstream beers. Samuel Adams makes an outstanding Irish red, but the Great Lakes version is the very best I’ve had.
Named after Patrick Conway, a Cleveland police officer who directed traffic near the current brewery site for 25 years, Conway’s has that classic toasty flavor derived from lightly roasted malts. The use of Northern Brewer, Hallertau, and Fuggle hops, although very subtle, adds a slight bitterness that rounds out the flavor nicely. Irish reds sometimes get dismissed as “bland” or “boring”, but Conway’s is neither. Its caramel and bready malts are the star players, with the hops holding down a crucial supporting role. And I love the way that toasty flavor lingers in the throat long after the beer has been swallowed! Mmmmm! I award bonus points in two key areas: A) Conway’s tastes just as good straight out of the bottle as it does in a glass and B) my case came stamped with a “drink by April 2011” notice. You have to respect a brewery that respects fresh beer. Available only from January through April, this is one seasonal I’d like to see on the shelves year-round.