So that time of year is upon us once again, the time when imbibing throngs pack into bars, throw on giant, foam hats, and clink mugs of green beer in celebration of, well, something. Perhaps a greater perversion than even the American fascination with and celebration of Cinco de Mayo, St. Patrick’s Day is an opportunity for wild, unabashed revelry among the masses and for big breweries to haul in the cash.
I live in Boston and St. Patrick’s Day is a thing of legend here. As a well-known Irish enclave, Boston plays hosts to more than its fair share of prefabricated, soulless, faux-Irish pubs. These places, with such thoughtful, traditional Gaelic names as The Purple Shamrock, are difficult to appreciate even on a slow weekday. Come the 17th of March, and the bars transform into some of the least hospitable places on the beer drinking planet.
Now I don’t begrudge anyone a day or two a year to let loose but this particular holiday, along with Cinco de Mayo, has always felt pretty forced to me, especially in Boston. Quick, tell me three things you know about the man known as Naomh Pádraig. Admit it, the only thing you could come up with was the snake thing. And when you think of Cinco de Mayo, you think of the day that Mexicans won their freedom. You and millions upon millions of others would be wrong on both counts. But why let a little history, or legend, get in the way of a few pints, right?
St. Patrick’s Day comes early to Boston, with the big brewers’ paper shamrock laden paraphernalia being taped to the walls of bars weeks in advance. And herein lies my real problem with the holiday (and Cinco de Mayo as well), namely its exploitation by big American breweries. Despite its ownership by London-based global behemoth Diageo (which is rumored to be closing Guinness’s historic and famous St. James Gate brewery in Dublin), I’ll give a pass to Guinness, which sells an estimated 13 million pints of the now-rubyish beer every March 17. But because American breweries, with no ties to Ireland or Irish history (the diluted histories of the big guys are all German), see a chance to sell a lot of beer, we get paper shamrocks haphazardly stuck to bar room walls.
So what to do on St. Patrick’s Day? Given the dearth of quality Irish beers (O’Hara’s Stout being a rare example), a few years back I recommended an exploration of Scottish-style ales out of spite. Seeing as Patrick was himself born in Roman Britain, and not Ireland, that recommendation seems sound today. So as I think about how a historic metaphor involving snakes and religion can spawn so wildly out of control, I’ll be drinking beer made by some Scottish descendants at the Dunedin Brewery in Florida.
–Article previously appeared on BeerScribe.com in March 2008.