NOTE: In the 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines, Irish Red Ale is now in Style 15A in Category 15 Irish Beer which contains the traditional beers of Ireland. These beers are amber to dark, top-fermented beers of moderate to slightly strong strength, and are often widely misunderstood due to differences in export versions, or overly focusing on the specific attributes of beer produced by high-volume, well-known breweries. Each of the styles in this grouping has a wider range than is commonly believed.
Irish Red Ales are similar enough to Scottish ales that the BJCP has included them in the same style category. No one really knows why Irish ales were originally red, but it probably has something to do with the different ways that grains are malted and kilned between Ireland and the rest of England and Scotland.
Today, Irish red ales get their red color from the use of a small amount of highly kilned grain such as roasted barley.
The beer is a lighter, maltier and less hoppy Irish version of an English bitter style. The signature characteristics of this red ale is its toasty notes and dry finish possibly with some diacetyl and caramel sweetness.
In Ultimate Beer, Michael Jackson says of Irish ales, "...there is also in Irish ales a sweetness, a creaminess, and sometimes a slight butteriness..."
The Irish have had slightly better luck at growing hops than the Scottish farmers, so maybe this affected the amount paid for hop imports.
The GABF style listing for Irish Red describes the beer as having a medium hop bitterness and flavor most often with no hop aroma. When present, it looks like the hop flavor is from English varieties and is usually low.
There doesn't seem to be much history for this beer online. It is possible that it was simply taken for granted as the local session beer.
Stouts are much more popular in Ireland and make up a huge part of the market there. Most ales produced in Ireland today are of the Irish red style. If you look at most top ten lists, there are far more American versions than those from Ireland. There are even a few that are somewhat mislabeled as ales when it is evident that they are lagers and not to style.
The best descriptor for this beer is that it's a balanced beer. Important factors to remember when brewing one is to keep the darker malts (roasted flavors), caramel malts (sweet flavors), and hop flavors and bitterness, in check and in balance. Over-use of any of these ingredients can throw the beer out of balance and out of style.
English pale ale malts are often used which will give the nice toasty notes the beer is known for, but it's easy to cover these flavors up when the beer is out of balance.
Many Irish Reds are brewed as lagers but with proper temperature control and cooler fermentation temps, you can brew a clean beer with low esters using ale yeast. Be careful not to get the ale yeast too cold that the beer does not attenuate enough and leaves the ale too sweet.
A small amount of diacetyl is acceptable, but it's probably better to keep this to a minimum. Acceptable does not always mean preferred.
References: Information for this page was adapted from the 2008 and 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines, Brewing Classic Styles, 80 Winning Recipes Anyone Can Brew, by Jamil Zainasheff and John J. Palmer, and Ultimate Beer by Michael Jackson.
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