This essay is part of a series this month, coinciding with the concept of Flagship February, wherein we intend to revisit the flagship beers of regional craft breweries, reflect on their influence within the beer scene, and assess how those beers fit into the modern beer world. Click here to see all the other entries in the series.
I remember a time in my beer-drinking life when the idea of “Irish red ale” was particularly attractive to me. Having never been a fan of the macro lagers one could expect to find at any given house party as a 21-year-old college student, my gateway into the “better beer” world often came in the form of amber-colored, lightly malty beers that offered a gentle introduction. Smithwick’s, the little brother to Guinness in the Diageo portfolio, was one of those sorts of beers I grew to appreciate for their relative restraint: They weren’t profoundly or artificially sweet, and they didn’t have the challenging bitterness of microbrew pale ales and IPAs of the time. Those amber and red ales, in other words, were the entry point I needed in order to start expanding my personal definition of what “beer” could be.
Of course, this was in central Illinois. Had I been in San Diego at the time, I have no doubt that one of the keys to my beer awakening would have been Karl Strauss Brewing Co.’s Red Trolley Ale. Brewed for more than 30 years now, Red Trolley is one of that great beer city’s oldest and most consistent flagships; an island of gentle malt in a city often defined by hoppy bitterness.
Defining “Irish red ale,” though, isn’t necessarily the easiest thing for a beer geek to do. There are a handful of classic commercial examples from the U.K., but in the hands of U.S. breweries the style can often mean whatever any given brewery decides it should. I’ve had Irish red ales that were extremely hoppy, or so pale they were barely amber; beers that were sticky sweet or almost dry as a bone. There’s little consensus on what the name implies.
In comparison to say, American amber ale, though, it is generally accepted that Irish red ale is less defined by hops—and probably uses U.K. hop varieties to boot. I also tend to think of them as less dominated by the caramel flavors of crystal malt, as many Irish red ale recipes instead incorporate some small amount of unmalted, roasted barley to contribute color and the slightest hint of dry roastiness. In that sense, they’re almost like an offshoot of Irish-style dry stout, simply not incorporating as much roasted barley, which allows the more delicate malty and hoppy notes to shine through.
It is, therefore, a style defined by subtlety and balance, and it makes for an unusual addition to this flagship series in the sense that it’s perhaps the only beer here that I’ve actually never sampled before. I therefore bring no real expectations or preconceptions into the following tasting: This is as objective as it gets.
Tasting: Karl Strauss Red Trolley Ale
Here’s how Karl Strauss describes their flagship of more than three decades:
Red Trolley Ale sets the standard for Irish Red Ales. Each batch of this multi award-winning beer is brewed with a half-ton of caramelized malts for a deep copper color and toffee flavor. After adding the perfect mix of hops for balance, the brew is warm-fermented to bring out hints of raisins and currants.
You know that a recipe/description is probably on the older side when it incorporates phrases like “warm-fermented” to imply ale yeast. That seems fitting for Red Trolley, which is a beer that prides itself on being old-school in profile.
On the nose, this beer really took me back to my headspace as that 21-year-old college student. It very much does give off the classic Irish red ale vibe, with lots of toasted malt and a teensy bit of caramel, and just a slight bit of roast or char. It smells like a toasted English muffin, in a way that makes me hungry just to write.
On the palate, Red Trolley is slightly grainy, with toasted barley flavors, light caramel and that hint of roast once again. There’s some slight hoppiness here for balance as well, piney and earthy in nature, but they fade quickly and don’t contribute much bitterness. All in all, this is a malt-driven beer without being a sweet or “rich” one—it drinks extremely easily, and that feels like the whole point. It’s just assertive enough to keep your attention, but accessible enough that almost anyone could drain their glass in a few minutes. In other words: Makes a whole lot of sense for a flagship that was first created in 1989.
Honestly, this is the kind of beer style I’ve rarely turned to in recent years, and the same could probably be said about a lot of us geeks and writers. It’s funny, then, that whenever I take the time to revisit beers like this I always end up thinking “I should drink these more often.” There’s something to be said about the judiciousness of beers like Red Trolley—they don’t ask much of the drinker, and they satisfy on a basic, instinctual level. They’re generous, in that way. I’m glad that this series gave me an excuse to finally try this one.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident craft beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for much more drinks writing.