Growing up a Protestant Midwesterner, the phenomenon of St. Patrick’s Day inspired questions that never had satisfactory answers. Michigan, my home state, claims a 70% Christian population, with Catholics making up less than 20% of that group. Why, I wondered, did this minority influence translate into elementary craft projects featuring four leaf clovers and red-haired leprechauns leering over pots of gold?
As I got older, the questions took on less of a theological bent, and focused on the practical manifestations of the day’s observance. For example, why dye innocent rivers green? (Chicago’s famous- or infamous, depending on your point of view- tradition can be traced back to an environmentally unfriendly practice used by the plumber’s union to find sources of illegal pollution sources and just sort of blossomed from there) And why not stop at rivers? Why did great swaths of American corporations lose their minds come mid-March and make green as many of their wares as possible?
When I was on the cusp of conversion, it occurred to me that possibly that most depressing of faux St. Patrick’s Day observations- the dying of cheap beer green- was a plot hatched by the combined efforts of Teetotalers who hated alcohol and Gnostics who hate the material world. That, coupled with the reckless drinking engaged in by a certain segment of the day’s celebrants, would combine to make a Mother of All Hangovers severe enough to make the sufferer not only swear off drinking, but the celebration of all material objects forever.
Now, with over a decade’s worth of St. Patrick’s Days under my Catholic belt, I’m sorry to say that I still don’t have satisfactory answers to those childhood questions. But I do have opinions- very strong opinions- on beer. So if your Lenten observations haven’t included abstinence from alcohol, allow me to make a few suggestions on liturgically-appropriate brews, with nary a drop of green dye to be found.
St. Patrick was not Irish, but rather born in Roman Britain. As a nod to the saint’s place of birth, why not try something from Shepherd Neame Brewery, England’s oldest functioning brewing company? Though they began a millennia after Patrick walked the island, their Spitfire Ale is aptly named for a man with the fire for God that the saint displayed.
Can’t find any Spitfire? Try Courage Best Bitter, a biscuity beer for a man who showed great courage in the face of kidnapping and enslavement.
All the liquor stores around you sadly lacking in exotic offerings? Go for a standard like Newcastle or Bass and if anyone asks, remind them that St. Patrick doesn’t belong solely to Ireland.
After being kidnapped by pirates and sold into slavery as a shepherd, it was a good five years until Patrick was able to free himself and return to England. There, he entered the priesthood, became a bishop, and eventually returned to the land of his captivity. He spent the rest of his earthly days preaching the Gospel and spreading the faith.
I’d fall out dead from shock at the failure of capitalism if there wasn’t already a prominent display of Irish beer at your local liquor store, and since finding beer here in the States from an Irish brewery means you’re mostly limited to Guinness, why not try an Antwerpen Stout? With high ratings on Beer Advocate, and the Guinness label attached to it, it’s a beer you have a chance of finding on this side of the pond right now.
There are few people as insufferable as a Catholic convert beer snob. Add “English major” to the list, and you’ve got someone who will talk your ear off about the deep, symbolic, theological tie ins between the beer in her hand and the saint on the calendar. If you’re sympathetic (or just curious), here’s a couple off the beaten path beers to enjoy prudently this St. Patrick’s Day.
St. Patrick was a man of paradoxes. The escaped slave who returned to the land of his enslavement to free its people from bondage to sin. The mystic who foresaw his ordination in a vision, yet used mundane, firmly earthly objects to explain theological mysteries. A man whose sour, terrifying adolescence mellowed into a striking legacy.
In honor of a life like that, why not hunt down Paradox Beer Company’s Salty Melon Sour Ale? Cantaloupe and watermelon originated in Africa and the Middle East, and were spread, much like Christianity, along the vast Roman trade network, even all the way to British colonies. The saltiness evokes the sea Patrick crossed repeatedly, back and forth between the island of his birth and the island of his evangelization. And the hay notes in the aroma call to mind the sheep the saint was called to shepherd- both literally as a slave and metaphysically as a bishop.
If sour beers aren’t your thing, Flying Dog Brewery has a beer called “Snake Dog”, an IPA that’s a nod to the whole “driving the snakes out of Ireland” story. Not sure how St. Patrick felt about the snake dogs, though. And, if you’re within distribution distance, Snake River Brewer in Wyoming has a Monarch Pilsner that is named for an elk, but for the sake of the day we could allow for a little creative license and say it’s for Christ the King, to whom St. Patrick composed his enduring prayer:
Christ be within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ inquired, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.