By TOM BENDER

With St. Patrick’s Day closing in, a number of celebratory food and beverages will kick in across our country.

While the selection may be traditional and somewhat ordinary in our minds, Ireland has actually gone through a bit of a revolution as of late when it comes what is on tap and on their restaurant tables.

Last summer I spent a week in the southern half of the country and got a first-hand look at the emerging food and beverage scene in Ireland. Like our own country, their younger generation is shaping the interest while elevating the quality and choices of beers and fresh regional foods.

For many years the Irish diet and their restaurant options were filled with hearty bland foods and, yes, potatoes was very much a staple. But that has changed with the advent of many young chefs seeking local products and brewers creating regional beers.

While historic distilleries remain the mainstay when it comes to their whiskeys, craft beers can be found in most pubs. Even with our first two nights spent in Dublin and a couple of visits to local pubs, I was steered away from the obligatory pint of Guinness Stout by bartenders and tried a number of beers ranging from hearty brown ales to hoppy IPAs. It was not till our fifth day on the trip and in the West Coast village of Dingle did I break down and have a Guinness so I could send a picture to a beer-questioning friend back home.

The other part of the equation that discouraged me from enjoying the country’s famous stout and No. 1 selling beer is the tactics exercised by them. Think of them as bullies in the barroom.

According to several barkeeps, Guinness knows they have to be in every bar for the pub to survive and requires the pub to maintain a certain number of taps in order to get their product. And it sounded like they charge more for their product than any other producer. You can see why some barkeeps are not fond of their signature stout.

Don’t get me wrong, I have always liked Guinness and enjoyed the several pints I had there. Its rich dark flavors are a meal in a glass. But like the explosion in U.S. craft brewing impacting mega producers Bud, Miller and Coors, the upswing in local brewing has led to Guinness producing and marketing other styles including a nitro lager.

And along with expanded tap options comes a food transformation that is very evident.

Even some of the traditional pubs seem to take it up a notch when it comes to classic fish and chips or traditional dishes such as corned beef and cabbage and lamb stews. The examples we had were nicely presented and a big notch above ordinary fair.

But the most striking options were several medium-priced restaurants that crafted menus around local fish and produce. The new movement is evident in a study in 2010 indicating the drop in potato consumption in the country by 50 percent.

Their chefs may have taken a global approach when came to flavors but stayed true to sourcing the freshest local ingredients.

Ard Bia, an eclectic regional restaurant in Galway, served up a Thai mussel dish that was priming with flavor followed by a West Cork duck breast on polenta with wilted greens.

Out of the Blue Restaurant in the West Coast seaside town of Dingle sits on the harbor and knocked us out with dish of seared local scallops with a fennel garlic butter sauce along with a potato crusted sea bass with an olive tapenade. And most of the restaurants featured a wide range of interesting wines from Spain and South America.

Throw in their friendly hospitality, mix with spectacular countryside, add abundant history, and serve with festive regional music and your Irish eyes will be smiling!

Sonora-area resident Tom Bender has taught classes on wine in Columbia College’s Culinary Arts program since 1979. He managed the Columbia City Hotel, and its award-winning wine cellar, for many years and now manages a wine bar at a Modesto specialty market. He is also a wine maker. Contact him at wineguy@goldrush.com .

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