Why the Green Beer?

By Poppy Milliken
Posted in The Field Guide to Drinking in America, on March 15, 2015

A great American drinking holiday is just around the corner. For some, St. Patrick’s day is a harbinger of spring: a raucous party where corned beef and cabbage dominate the menu, green beer and other libations are quaffed with gusto, and the streets are awash in a sea of emerald. Most revelers know that the celebration is somewhat different in Ireland itself. Saint Patrick never drove the snakes out of Ireland and in fact wasn’t even born there (turns out he was English). His feast day is a national holiday in Ireland, and because it lands in the midst of Lent, it was one day during the period of fasting and penance where the Irish allowed themselves a little feasting and drinking.

St. Patricks day is one of a handful of pseudo-cultural celebrations which may have been created as a way for a large immigrant population to wax poetic about their homeland, but has become just another excuse to party (see also: Cinco de Mayo, Oktoberfest and Mardi Gras). Which is fine by us. Scrubbing off the religious trappings makes St. Patrick's Day a fine excuse to party mid-March. But why the green beer?

A mug of beer dyed green for St. Patrick's Day

Oh dear, green beer

The first references to green beer have nothing to do with the color, but are instead used to describe beer not aged properly. Green-colored beer came later, with many sources citing the first instances in New York and Boston.

  • A 1914 newspaper article describes a New York social club serving green beer at a celebratory St. Patrick's Day dinner. In the article, the invention is attributed to a coroner's physician who achieved the effect by putting "wash blue" dye in the beer. There are several such references of green-colored beer in the first half of the 20th century and it’s impossible to pinpoint the real roots of this bizarre tradition, but it’s quite clear that one way or another, by the 1950s, it was an accepted part of the American St. Patty’s celebration.
  • There are mentions of green-colored beer in descriptions of wild St. Patrick’s Day festivities
  • In 1952 the students at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio founded the tradition of Green Beer Day, where every year on the Thursday before the school’s spring break they hold their “alternative St. Patrick’s Day.”

In the end, green beer is a quirky and oddly American take on the proper way to celebrate Irish heritage and there's good reason to believe it won't remain a lasting part of the holiday. As the growing popularity of the craft beer scene takes hold throughout the country and greater segments of the population are turning to beers that don’t quite take the food coloring as well, we are seeing less of the stuff. I’m sure we will continue to celebrate the Irish in the most American fashion possible; just perhaps with a little less brightly-colored lager.


Poppy Milliken is one of Overcup's interns-turned-freelance employees and is the marketing coordinator for the Field Guide. She wears many publishing hats and has recently started her own business. To learn more visit the Interrobang Collective website.