George Killian Lett, the soul of the famous red lager from Enniscorthy , Ireland , passed away Monday morning at the age of 84, after battling stomach cancer.
Years ago in the early 1980s I had the good fortune to experience closeness to the truly wonderful Killian’s Irish Red Ale, a beer that was originally created by an Irishman in France. His name was George Killian Lett and the Adolph Coors Brewing Company created an American version of his beer, now simply called Killians.
Here is an excerpt from my book, Microbrewed Adventures, from the chapter Irish “French Ale in the High Country.”
Falling in love in France. A desire to marry and relocate in America. The relatives who are from Ireland must grant permission. An impassioned relationship, a contract with the parents and those that had kept her in France. Moving to America. Arrival. Culture shock. How to introduce her to friends? At first adhering true to her origins, she slowly evolves and eventually transforms and becomes more American than she is French or Irish. In middle age, she is ignored, shelved for younger passions, but she still survives. Her roots have been misplaced, lost. But her pride persists; she is nominally supported and enjoys an active life as the unknown horizons of twilight approaches.
It has all the intrigue of a movie romance. It began as a passionate love affair in the late 1970s and early 80s with Irish Red Ale, brewed in France by the Pellforth Brewing Company who had a license agreement with the Irish company, George Killian Lett Brewing Company. Peter Coors of the Coors Brewing Company pursued the company’s interest with this ale. Visiting France, I can only imagine he was wondering, could this wonderfully complex red ale be brewed in America by his company and successfully introduced to American beer drinkers.
The years of intrigue and initial development were from about 1980 to 1982. During that period I lucked out having been given a small 250 ml bottle of the George Killian’s Irish Red Ale, brewed at the Pellforth brewery. It was marvelously complex ale with only subtle fruitiness, but with big notes of nuttiness and toasted malt, balanced with hop character that put all its character in balance. Not overly bitter, smooth with quite a bit of drinkability. I recall a hint of floral aroma from perhaps the French countryside hops that may have been used.
Its new home in America necessitated a makeover for the American public. In the early 1980’s the pilot brewery at the Coors Brewery occupied a relatively small space of about 5,000 square feet. I don’t quite recall exact numbers but it seemed that batch sizes were small at about 40 barrels. This was happening in a brewery that at the time was producing over 15 million barrels of Coors, Coors Light and Herman Joseph. The Coors pilot brewery was the largest of the half a dozen microbreweries that existed in 1981.
I had earlier been introduced to the pilot brewery staff and head pilot brewer Gil Ortega. One of the charges of the pilot brewery was product development. When I and other homebrewers were frequently invited to stop by and assess their experiments with “Killians Red Ale,” we jumped at the opportunity.
When given creative choices most brewers who call themselves Masterbrewers, will jump at the opportunity to develop new products. The spirit of beer passion was certainly evident in this tiny section of the Coors brewing factory.
There were many test batches, trying different malt types with varying degrees of toasting. At first different ale yeasts were used, producing full flavored red ale with hints of fruitiness and unfortunately explosively active warm temperature fermentations frothing out tops of the fermenters. The brewers and the homebrewers seemed to enjoy these earlier prototypes. So did several of the Coors staff, but the operationally the brewery had other priorities. The fermentations certainly needed to be tamer, warm temperature fermentations would require refitting with accommodating equipment. Ale yeast in a lager brewery made Coors nervous. And the looming marketing priority seemed to be, “make us something that we can sell to our lager drinkers.”
Killians Irish Red Ale originally introduced to the public at the first Great American Beer Festival in 1982 was indeed “top fermented” with ale yeast, but likely lagered at cooler temperatures to soften the complexity. I recall it being very well received. Most beer enthusiasts at the time were utterly astonished that Coors would be so bold to brew distinctive red ale with a notable degree of complexity.
Time passed and the company probably realized that if Killians were to survive its business model it had to increase its appeal to the average American beer drinker. In the following years lager yeast replaced ale yeast and the complexity was reduced to accommodate the more popular tastes of the time.
Killians has survived. It has very little resemblance to the originally made 1982 recipe and it certainly has lost any connection, other than by name, to the red ale Peter Coors romanced in France. Yet it survives and it reminds me of the very beginnings of the emergence of microbrewed beer and when Coors joined us and confided their passion for interesting, flavorful, complex beers.