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Monday, January 12, 2009

On Black IPAs

On Saturday, whilst craning my neck to see the Blazer game from a poorly-situated booth at the Laurelwood, I sipped "Arctic Apocalypse," Chad Kennedy's black imperial IPA. As he promised, it tasted more or less like a regular imperial IPA, though the dark malt(s) added what I'd call a malt-o-meal note (wholesome, rib-sticking, breakfasty). It's a neat trick, something to appreciate on the level of sleight of hand. But it raises more pertinent questions: why, for example, does the world need a black IPA? Are we similarly deprived for lack of a pale stout? Hmmm.

I have spent some time trawling the internets for an origin story for this trend (please, let's refrain from calling it a style just for the moment, shall we?), and came up empty. Someone thought of it, brewed it, and the meme was released. Now we have several dozen examples, and a few Oregon breweries have dabbled with stained IPAs. The idea doesn't appear to extend beyond coloring a standard style--sort of like green St. Patrick's Day beer--and the trick is to achieve darkness without changing the flavor.

This brings us to the why. Although I have commented dyspeptically in the past about style creep, I'm actually a big fan of innovation. Yet the idea isn't to change the nature of the beer, just its color--isn't that gimmickry, not innovation?

None of this is to slag Acrtic Apocalypse (though how about "Black Bombay" or "Dark Delhi" or somethinng?), which I enjoyed. Chad may have hit on one of the ways to accomplish the trick--add 100+ IBUs of hops and blast away all the maltiness. AA is a massive beer, and the hops come in a wall of brutish force, bouyed by a lot of thick, malt alcohol. If you're a fan of the imperial IPA style, you'll like this beer. (Although if you're more into nuance, try the British Daily Ale, which also just went on tap. It's a brown, full of flavor and aroma, but a session tipple. More of the Blazer-watching beer I was looking for.)

So how about your thoughts: black IPAs, gimmickry or grooviness?


  1. Jeff,

    Most of the dark IPAs i've had really pull of some good flavors from the roasted malts, not just the color. The Cascade Dark Day IPA and the one from Laughing Dog both had a great roasted malt base to them. I think the roasty chocolate flavors are a great pair against the strong citrus hops. I haven't had a chance to try the AA yet, but sounds like a bit of a let down if they just added for color.

  2. This type of blending of styles is interesting, but kind of gimmicky, in my opinion.

    I guess I'm a bit of traditionalist, but if you want to make a masterful IPA that includes getting all the characteristics of the style, including color.

    Anyway, I guess its an interesting experiment.

    P.S. Does every beer have to be "imperial" these days? And isn't an IPA already "imperial" by definition?

  3. Style?! What difference does it make?

    I just don't understand what the big deal is all about. Ok, Chad might have to think a bit about what category to enter the beer in for the World Beer Cup. Beyond that, if the beer is enjoyable, I say order another.


  4. Not sure "Black IPA's" will become a new style, but I can't see why not.

    The Black IPA reminds me of an Ale Version of a German Schwarz (Black Lager). Schwarz is an old German Beer Style which is basically a Black Lager with some roast and black patent flavors added. The Schwarz biers are quite enjoyable and fairly consistent brewery to brewery with only the dark malt additions being the difference. I'm guessing the Continential Dark Lager style might have come from this style??

    In regard to Black IPA's.... I first had a Black IPA back in CA made by Brian Hunt of Moonlight brewing fame. The beer was called Black Christmas and it was about 1998 or maybe earlier.

    The beer was exactly what it sounds like - An IPA, made with British Goldings Hops which are more flowery and spicy than the over used Cascade Hops. The hops were of moderately high usage and married well with the slight dark roast and charcoal notes of the Black Patent malt. It was a nicely done beer.

    After the Black Christmas, I think there were a couple of other local pubs that brewed that type of beer. My memory is a little sketchy, but I think Triple Rock in Berkeley and one other brewery produced the Black IPA. It seemed to have fallen out of vogue or interest for quite some time, only to sporadically pop up as a specialty from Moonlight once again.

    I have tried a couple local Back IPA's (not all) and have found the ones I've tried to be a little off balance one way or the other. Pelican's "Bad Santa" was OK, but seemed to be lacking is the hops or at least, the correct marriage of hops to dark malts. I know I tried one other Black IPA, but can't remember from which brewery. It was too hoppy and blew out the dark malts, making it just BLACK for the sake of looking Black.

    Walking Man's "Big Black Homo" seemed to be the best marriage of Dark Malts, hop spiciness and bitterness, but Homo Erectus is a Double IPA.

    I think it's an interesting style that has potential to be.... dare I say..... popular.

    That's all I can add from my memory banks.

  5. I second dr wort's recommendation of Big Black Homo, and really agree with every point he made on black IPA's… not being a huge hop head (because if its bitterness, not because of its flavor), I find most examples in the style to still be too hoppy (can't remember one off-hand, but I think Hopworks had one I would put in that category), or barely hoppy at all (Cascade's Dark Day IPA, definitely… I wouldn't call it an IPA at all, but then I wouldn't complain :); but Big Black Homo manages to smooth out the edges of Homo Erectus just enough, while still leaving it plenty resiney. It's not one of my favorite beers (Old Kentucky Homo gets my vote there, and both my thumbs), but it certainly fits its "style" well, and goes great with the rest of Walking Man's offerings, all of which I've liked tremendously (let me put in another vote for Old Kentucky Homo).


  6. I've only had Stone's Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale (and have Bere Here's Dark Hops in my refrigerator), but I thought it came out great. It's undoubtedly distinguished from IPA--not at all comparable simply changing the color. The malt flavor and mouth feel were very unique from any IPA I've had.

    I see where the impulse to call it a gimmick comes's quite attention grabbing to take a PALE ale and turn it BLACK...but from my limited experience, it really creates a unique beverage that I'd love to see more of.

  7. Midnight Sun Brewery in Anchorage AK will convince you it is a great style. The have a black double IPA, oak aged...

    It is simply my new favorite beer. Pricey, but worth it.

  8. Deebs, the I in IPA stands for India, not imperial. An IIPA is an imperial India pale ale, or double IPA. Imperial is just a way to say more than or bigger than the normal. The nomenclature comes from Imperial stouts.

  9. I have to admit, I rather like this meme, and post this just to let you know: it's a-spreadin'. The first I had was from South London's Kernel. It caused much interest among punters who, like I, thought it must be a Kernel innovation, as they're an innovative bunch. This was one of the more recent novelties of a new brewery. I now, though sit in front of half done Brodie's Dalston Black IPA - first time I've seen it from them, another relatively new and very innovative brewery. On the basis of these two, there's definitely a stylistic consistency - a bit paradoxical, with the smokey flavours and the hops somehow both accentuating and concealing each other. Madly liquorish, metalic, incredibly bitter chocolate...