As Indiana University students return to campus, Bloomington is once again taking on shades of cream and crimson. While I’m an ardent IU supporter, in the fall my favorite place to see those hues are in my beer glass, as my tastes turn toward malty red ales.
There are some American beers that bill themselves as red ales—with a wide range of potency and off-the-charts hoppiness—but my preferences are those brewed in the Irish style. The colors of an Irish red are a reddish-copper with an off-white head, and the taste is dominated by caramel malts, some biscuit flavor, and occasionally a hint of buttery toffee. Irish reds are slightly sweet up front, but they should have a touch of dryness in the finish from roasted barley, the same ingredient that provides that deep red hue. Hop aromas are low, and any hop flavor (from English hop varieties that lend a bit of earthy character) is just enough to balance the maltiness.
One of my favorite Irish reds is Smithwick’s Red Ale ($9.99/6-pack, Big Red Liquors), an import that is an exemplar of the style. Its color is somewhere between copper and ruby, and the aroma is malty sweet, with just a hint of earthy Goldings hops. This beer has a bit of caramel sweetness, but it is well balanced with a light bitterness, and it finishes drier than you’d expect. At 3.8 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), this is an easy-drinking pub ale.
A close second is a local brew. Hoosier Red Ale from Quaff ON! Brewing Co. is a light copper color, with a nice caramel malt flavor that avoids the buttery toffee of some Irish reds. It’s more lightly hopped than Smithwick’s, but still has enough bitterness and hop flavor to be a very well-balanced beer—one of the most drinkable I’ve had. At 5.5 percent ABV, it’s a bit more potent than other Irish reds, but it’s still manageable if you want a second. And you will.
Another new favorite is also local: Switchyard Brewing Company’s Session Red. This red ale blurs some lines with English bitter ales, offering a simpler malt profile—not so much deep caramel or toffee—and a more generous dose of hops that cuts the sweetness. But the beer is still deliciously malt-forward, and the hops add uniquely British flavors—earthy and just a bit woody. At 4.6 percent ABV, this one is perfect over conversation or games in the taproom.
These red ales offer a treat for all of your senses, with rich copper colors and even richer malty tastes. And with lower alcohol levels, they are great for social occasions where you want to enjoy a beer or two while keeping your wits about you. For an authentic experience, track down a few imports from the Emerald Isle, but be sure to investigate what our local brewers have to offer
Greg Siering has been homebrewing since 2006 and is a member of the Bloomington Hop Jockeys. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.