Wednesday, 29 September 2021

Brewing History: Irish Red Ale Part III - Immigrant or Emigrant?

Well here we are at last, and in this the final part of my trilogy on Irish Red Ales, you can once again expect more questions that definitive answers, and more vagueness than actual facts, but I will certainly do my best to steer this difficult topic onwards towards a conclusion that is less of a grinding halt and more of a squeaky trundle towards a slippery patch of black ice ...

In part one of this series I dealt with the ancient records of red ale in Ireland, and part two concentrated on the complicated case for the availability of ‘red’ (amber) ales in the 18th, 19th and early 20th century which brought us rushing past the 1950s and now lands us squarely in the 1960s, where Irish brewing was going through a revolution with regard to drinking habits, accompanied by an onslaught of new brands all vying for the attention of the modern, trendy beer drinker. Bright lights, bright bars and bright-ish beers were what a large percentage of younger people craved and wanted.

Of course the 60s were a decade of change in Ireland on many fronts but relevant to our story are those changing tastes of the young (and not so young), fickle Irish beer consumer. Lagers and imported ale brands pushed by modern marketing techniques and clever wording began to influence what was being drunk in both pubs and at home. Our brewing heritage was also being 'consolidated' as a certain brewery flexed its stout muscles and wrapped its arms around most of the smaller Irish brands and breweries that were unable to compete with the bigger domestic breweries or deal with the influx of foreign brands and brewing companies that arrived on our shores in this period.

And so, with practically all of the major domestic ale brands now in Guinness’s warm and all-encompassing embrace, that behemoth of Irish brewing decided to bring the fight for the small-but-growing ale market in Ireland to the frontline of the pub countertop and to repel the assault of the English kegged ale brands that were making relatively large noise in the marketplace. (They were to have a second battle on the lager front but that is a story for a different post.)

And it is from this point that our story continues with a tight focus on a certain so-called Irish Red Ale …

If you ask anyone within these shores to name an Irish red ale almost all will say ‘Oh, Smithwick’s of course!’, but the curious thing is that Smithwick’s Draught seems to have never branded or advertised itself as a red ale - in print at least - until sometime after it launched its Pale and Blonde ales, so within the last decade or so. The reason for this was of course because ‘Irish Red Ales’ as a term did not really exist in the vocabulary of Irish beer drinkers until the early to mid-1990s at a push, as far as I am aware, and even then it was not a well-known term outside certain circles. That is not to say that reddish coloured ales did not exist in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, as they clearly did, but they were just called ales or - at a real push - Irish ales or 'Traditional' ales from what I can see from advertisement, labels, and beer mats.

But let us go back to the turmoil of the 1960s that I mentioned above, and to a time just after Guinness had finally taken over Smithwick’s completely in the mid-sixties and it had launched Smithwick’s Draught as a new brand in 1966/67 along with a bottled version called Smithwick’s ‘D’. This just after the period when most of the Smithwick’s beers had been rebranded as Time ales. Smithwick’s No. 1 ale seems to have survived that rebranding, and indeed after the bold experiment that was Time was brought to an end it was being promoted quite heavily in bottle only in newspapers during this period of the mid-sixties, with advertisements promoting its ‘rich golden colour’ by the way! Considering that ‘No. 1’ was an award-winning ale that had survived from at least the early 20th century it is perhaps a little surprising that this ale was not used as a launching pad for Smithwick’s Draught and that instead Guinness appear to have gone for a completely new beer, not least in colour. So why invent this new amber-ish coloured ale instead of a rich golden one? I do not know the actual reason of course but I believe there is more than just one reason for this decision...

The first issue is that Guinness & Co., of course, already had in its stable a successfully marketed, bestselling, and attractive ‘bright’ pale ale in Phoenix, which had been launched the previous decade and was doing very well domestically at this time in keg and bottle. Phoenix had already taken sales from Smithwick’s No. 1 in the past so it would make little sense to pitch one pale ale against the other, as it would have meant stagnant revenues and a pointless war amongst themselves. What may also be relevant if that Beamish & Crawford launched Celebration Ale - another ‘bright’ beer - in early 1966 and that was enough competition for Phoenix. (Perry’s ale still existed too, as did Macardles of course, bot controlled by Guinness but perhaps neither brand merited a rebrand at this time - Perry’s at this point was just an occasionally available draught ale.)

Secondly, they saw the real enemy as the English brands and breweries that were looking long and hard at the Irish market - but in particular Watney’s Red Barrel which was making serious inroads1 into kegged ale sales in Ireland and was being heavily advertised from 1964, and especially so when it began being brewed in Lady’s Well Brewery in Cork - then owned by Watney Mann - in mid-1966. Red Barrel was not 'red' of course, although what appears to be a publicity shot of a tankard of the ale in ‘The Murphy Story’ certainly shows it as ‘red’ as modern Smithwicks.1 There may also have been a subliminal perception that it was somewhat darker than it actually was given its name. Having said that, Boak & Bailey’s post on Red Barrel show a dark golden(?) beer when it was rebrewed, and the brewing records shown in their post states it was 27 EBC (Or maybe 24 EBC in Ron Pattinson’s linked-to version within their post), so approaching amber in colour perhaps. (Michael Jackson's Beer Companion says that Smithwick's was 29 EBC by the way.) More proof of its darkish colour is in the replies to that post, where Gary Gillman from Beer et seq. flags a video that clearly show Red Barrell being poured in the 60s and it is indeed quite an amber colour very like Smithwick's Draught's shade in this advertisement. It was also moderately hopped at 30-32 IBU and was 3.8% ABV according to that post, so certainly not a dissimilar beer to what we believe Smithwick was when launched, if perhaps a little more bitter and (perhaps) a little less 'red'. It is worth noting too that other advertisements from this period such as the one flagged above appear to show Smithwick's Draught slightly paler than today’s version, and I am assuming it might have gone through one or more changes or tweaks in the interim - although I have no proof of that and images, and especially those from publicity material, can be notoriously unreliable but I am not sure if there was a huge difference between Red Barrel and Smithwick's colour-wise at launch

I have very little doubt that Red Barrel was Guinness's target, and a darker coloured Irish keg ale with a good provenance suited their portfolio too, plus it distanced Smithwick's Draught from Phoenix. Also, it might be no coincidence that just like Time ale before them they used a barrel or keg as their pump font, as perhaps a dig at the little red barrel that Watney’s used for their ale font, albeit Smithwick’s version was white and more stylised. (Intriguingly there was an alcohol free version of Smithwick's made in the 80s or 90s I believe - I have undated labels - that was sold as Smithwick's AFB - alcohol free bitter!)

A report on Smithwick’s ‘275th’ anniversary in The Kilkenny People in 1985, admittedly 20 years after the launch of its kegged ale states that ‘public taste […] for ale had begun to change and a demand for a darker, sweeter ale became apparent late in 1965. Smithwick’s draught keg was developed therefore to meet demand.’ So this also seems to rule out the possibility that Smithwick's Draught was a rebrew of an older XX ale or similar from Smithwick's wonderful repertoire of ales from the 19th and early 20th century, more is the pity, and seems to show that they were indeed mimicking in a way, another kegged ale that was selling well at the time - Red Barrel. (Incidentally, these few sentences in an editorial advertisement no doubt approved by the company, blows a large and gaping hole in the Smithwick’s brand’s current - and ridiculous - assertion that their beer has been going since 1710!)

What is certain is that Guinness desperately needed a ‘new’ keg ale to compete with newcomers and that the direction they chose to go was a success, as they soon made progress in the Irish ale market to the point that in a couple of yearsthey were ahead of all competitors - including Phoenix by the way - although they would be soon challenged and pushed by Beamish & Crawford brewed Bass on its introduction in 1968 /69.2

But how or when did Smithwick's become known as an Irish red ale in Ireland? As I mentioned earlier, I think it was only since the last rebrand that included the blonde and the pale, so that is just in the last few year - although I am not quite sure I believe that myself even though I can find no evidence in advertisement and bottle labels to the contrary. It may have been marketed as a red ale on foreign shores before that time but apart from it being lumped in with other ‘red’ ales in newspaper reports in the late nineties and editorials I cannot see it branded as such.

But its nitrogenated distant cousin Kilkenny Ale, certainly was…

Kilkenny was launched by Guinness first in Germany in 1987 and was later released on the Irish public in 1995, as Guinness no doubt felt that Caffrey’s ale was trying to sneak into the market with its nitro ale. The export version of Kilkenny was 5% abv and the Irish version was a little weaker at 4.3%, but it is important to point out that the kegged version was not just a nitrogenated version of Smithwick’s according to any sources I can see in newspaper reports, it was a new formulation to piggyback on the success of the international success of Killian’s Red Ale in my opinion. (Killian’s Red was the subject of a great deep dive by Martyn Cornell, which I have posted a link to at the end of my post.) The bottle export version was also 5% and presumably not nitrogenated in any way and Kilkenny was certainly marketed and mentioned as a red ale in most, if not all, markets. (It is currently sold in Ireland as an Irish Cream Ale - certainly a term that did not exist here until very recently either - and is 4.3% abv, which suggests a recipe change since its launch.)

One curious mention I found was for the launch in Ireland in 1993 of a 5% red coloured ale called ‘1710 Export’ in bottle. A mention in the Evening Herald’s ‘The Diary’ - a social gossip column - in November mentions the beer and states that Guinness’s Smithwick’s marketing manager said that it ‘was not just Smithwick's with a fancy new image “It’s based on and American red beer recipe” “it’s a totally new product.”’ A smoking gun you say...?

Am I the only person who thinks that this may have been a bottled version of Kilkenny ale, which was being brewed in Kilkenny for export at this time? Why would Guinness develop another 5% export red beer when they already had one being brewed in the same brewery? I can find very little more information on this product but if it is not export Kilkenny then and if the quote is to be believed, it shows that Guinness via the Smithwick’s marketing wing was looking into replicating and improving on certain American red beers at this time, or at least one being sold there as an Irish Red Ale. If '1710 Export' was Kilkenny ale being trial launched on the public then the above quote certainly highlights its actual original provenance, and that if far from these shores. 

So, the final iteration of ‘Irish Red Ale’ did not really originate here at all but in America and other foreign markets, although a reddish ale did exist, in Smithwick’s Draught, it was never known as such here. I am not sure where the other traditional ‘red’ that is Macardles ale fits into this colour-wise or otherwise - it is possible it morphed into a darker ale sometime in the 60s or early 70s, like Phoenix may have done at a later date, but it was marketed as a' Traditional Ale'. (Another ale, brewed for export in Dundalk by Guinness, called Twyford was marketed as an ‘Amber’ ale sometime in the 80s I think.)

The other big culprits in this whole red ale saga are homebrewers, and microbrewers who lifted the term as it applied to international ‘Irish Red Ales’ and made it into a believable style, that was then reimported back into Ireland under that name by the early batch of Irish microbreweries aided and abetted by other macrobrewed versions like Murphy’s Red Ale launched in Germany first in 1995 and Beamish Red which was launched in England the following year.

Suddenly we were swamped in red ales by name and style, apart from as I have mentioned, the one ale that most people think of as a red ale - Smithwick's - which makes me wonder why I have spent so long discussing it!

And yes, I am aware it is an Irish ale that is red...

So it looks to me like this age of red ales had no real, provable connection with the two previous eras of red/amber ales apart from the obvious one of the actual colour. There is most probably a connection between Kilkenny Ale and Killian's Red and therefore at a push that Enniscorthy Ruby Ale allegedly brewed up to 1956, and that may have some connection with the older amber ales of the previous centuries but again I can find no proof - and of course they would have been completely different formulas and recipes, unless some of them just coincidentally happened to taste very similar - but we will probably never know that …

That last point brings me towards the conclusion of what has turned out to be quite an interesting - in a niche way and relatively speaking - if convoluted journey in Irish red Ale, and towards an important question that I mentioned in the last post.

Does any of this really matter? Is any of this significant in any way?

Personally the answer is yes, as the importance for me lies in the research and the recording of the facts - with some amount of conjecture admittedly - that I have put into these posts. For too long we have let the marketing gurus of Irish breweries twist the facts to suit their flawed narrative, It is high time we set the record straight on as much of Irish brewing history as we can - and many have been doing this a lot longer than me I must add.

There are huge gaping holes in this incomplete history that I cannot currently fill that may bridge the gaps between centuries, styles, and recipes that I may discover in the future, and I am quite sure that this is a subject I will return to time and time again. If and when I come across new information then my hope is that these posts will evolve in time and perhaps my conclusions and opinions will change give new information.

But for now, I am happy to reiterate that there is no link between the three Irish Red Ale eras, although a red coloured ale of sorts probably existed in all of these times.

I am also happy to repeat what many knew already, which is that Irish Red Ales (in capital letters like that) as a moniker for a group of similar-ish beers is a very new term.

But I am most happy to report that the same group of beers brewed by some of the many microbreweries on the planet are one of my favourite styles, so let us not fixate too much on the subject of labels and just drink and brew more red ales, although I fear it is too late to stem the arguments - and also that I might just have made things worse...


(Martyn Cornell's Killian's Red Ale article I mentioned above is here.)


(Please let me know of any errors you see in this piece and I will do my best to rectify them - or argue my case.)

All written content and the research involved in publishing it here is my own unless otherwise stated and cannot be reproduced elsewhere without my permission, full credit to its source, and a link back to this post. References to newspaper is available via email or DM to me. The image at the top of the post is my own.

1 Chapter 9 of The Murphy Story by Diarmuid Ó Drisceoil & Donal Ó Drisceoil

Beamish & Crawford - the History of an Irish Brewery by Diarmuid Ó Drisceoil & Donal Ó Drisceoil

1 comment:

The Beer Nut said...

Can absolutely confirm that there was no need for the term "Irish Red Ale" until the advent of the craft era. To a 1990s Northern Irish drinker (me), Smithwick's and Bass were "ales" and the word needed no more qualification than did Harp and Tennents as "lagers" or Guinness and Murphy's as "stouts". That's all three kinds of beer right there.