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Beer and Food Pairings for St. Patrick's Day

Editor's Note: We're trying to find the best beers to drink with our favorite foods. Certified Cicerone Michael Agnew is here to help.

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[Photo: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

St. Patty's Day is here again. This holiday perhaps more than any other—particularly the religious ones—is associated with drinking beer. It's a suds-fueled release of energies pent-up during Lent's long days of denial. Another important part of this Saint's day celebration is the adoption of certain "traditionally Irish" foods. Sounds to me like the perfect excuse to create some tasty beer and food pairings.

Corned Beef and Cabbage

It wouldn't really be right to celebrate St. Patrick's Day without some corned beef and cabbage. (Here's The Food Lab's post on the topic.) And though it's easy to reach for a Guinness, you have a number of other options, too. Dry Irish stouts offer a great counterpoint to the salty corned beef and sweet carrots. Try Murphy's Irish Stout, which has a bit more substantial mouthfeel than Guinness, or North Coast Old No. 38, which offers chocolate, molasses and licorice flavors.

Not a huge stout fan? Scottish ales are a wonderful partner for the classic St. Patrick's Day plate, highlighting the subtle sweetness and saltiness of the corned beef. Belhaven Scottish Ale is smooth and sweet with just a kiss of hop bitterness to balance. More locally, Odell 90-Shilling is another good choice.

Irish red ale gives you the best of both the stout and the Scottish ale, with caramel up front and a bit of roast on the way out—in fact, it's my favorite pairing for corned beef and cabbage. Seek out Porterhouse Red Ale from Dublin or the slightly sweeter, fuller Boulevard Irish Ale.

But St. Patrick's isn't just about the corned beef! What about beers to sip with some other traditional dishes?

Irish Soda Bread

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[Photo: Carrie Vasios]

Whether on its own or with a meal, Irish soda bread is one of our favorite simple treats. Its dense and somewhat dry texture demands a quality beverage to help wash it down; something with a similarly sweet-and-simple profile. Tea is an option, but Irish lager is just the thing. It's unadorned, with just one type of malt giving it a graham-cracker character that matches both the heart and the crust of the bread. Bitterness and hop flavor are modest so they clear the palate without cluttering up the pairing.

Try Harp Lager. It's simply sweet and grainy malt is balanced by moderate bitterness and subtle grassy hop flavor. This beer is straightforward and clean, just like the bread. For a craft-brewed option, go with Rogue Kells Irish Lager. This one has a soft grainy sweetness with touches of biscuit that tie in nicely to the crust. No bells and whistles; just good, clean beer.

Irish Beef Stew

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[Photo: Caroline Ford]

Irish beef stew is to stew what Guinness is to beer. Dark brown gravy, meaty chunks of beef, and thick cubes of carrot and potato give it the appearance of a filling, hearty dish, but it is easily overwhelmed by beers that are too intensely flavored. For instance, light-weight dry stouts plays nice with the stew, but a rich and roasty milk stout or foreign extra stout will put it down for the count. I find that light-bodied beers with a balance of roasted malt and sweet caramel work best. They are in the same weight class as the stew and have flavors that tie in to both the meat and the veggies.

Those meat and veggie flavor hooks are important to consider, as different beers will highlight each one. Beers that lean more on sweetness will emphasize the carrots and caramelized onions, while those that tend toward roast will latch on to the beef.

To go the sweet route, think English mild or Scottish ale. Cain's Dark Mild is a great place to start. It's very light bodied, but still full flavored with a creamy mouthfeel. It has caramel sweetness that is great with the carrots, and just enough roast so that it doesn't leave the beef out to dry. Moorhouse's Black Cat Dark Mild has a bit more coffee-like roast character allows this mild to tie in a bit more to the beef, without letting go of the carrots. Scottish ales like smooth and creamy Belhaven Scottish Ale will be an excellent pairing with carrots and caramelized onions. A wee bit of smoke flavor in Orkney Dark Island make it a nice pairing for the sweeter side of the stew.

A pairing with Irish stout is all about the meat. The roasted malt of Murphy's Irish Stout grabs the meat and pulls it to the fore. But Murphy's has a bit more malty sweetness than Guinness so that is doesn't simply ignore rest of the stew. Victory Donnybrook Stout is light enough to let the stew come through and roasty enough to get the most from the meat.

Irish red ales and English browns strike a middle-road balance that scores with both meat and vegetables. Try Porterhouse Red—what a great beer this is; crisp and clean with pronounced caramel and toffee balanced by a healthy dose of bitter roast. But it's hard to do better than Samuel Smith's Nut Brown. Nutty, lightly sweet, with subtle roast and hop bitterness, it emphasized the meat in the pairing but didn't let the carrots go altogether. The flavors of beer and stew just seemed to flow together. Long Tail Hit the Trail Ale has nutty toast that mingles with brown sugar and light floral hops to tie into the full range of stew flavors and clear your palate when you're done.

There are so many great beer and food options to celebrate, though—so many choices beyond green-stained lager. What is your favorite St. Patrick's Day beer and food combination?

About the Author: Certified Cicerone Michael Agnew is the lead educator and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts beer tastings for private parties and corporate events. His beer musings can be read in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, his own Perfect Pint Blog, The Hop Press at Ratebeer.com, the City Pages Hot Dish Blog, and in respected national beer magazines. Follow him on Twitter at @aperfectpint

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