In anticipation of my upcoming review of Wellington’s Terrestrial IBA (India Brown Ale), I thought I might wade into the debate over the generically (and, in my humble opinion inaccurately) termed “Black IPA”. There is such dispute over what to call this style that many question whether it is a style at all. I’m not certain there is one right answer to this, but I will present my personal view on the matter and suggest some beers to try out yourself. These beers offer a really interesting mix of bitter, aromatic hops and dark roasted malts. It’s a combination that wouldn’t at first appear to work, balancing bitter with bitter but in practice they produce a great range of flavours and smells that make one analyze beyond mere generalities like “bitter” and “sweet”.
Firstly, let’s deal with nomenclature. There are several titles by which dark, hoppy beers are going by these days including (but not limited to): Black IPA, Cascadian Dark Ale, India Brown Ale and American Black Ale. I will dispose of the the least helpful to start. Black India Pale Ale is an oxymoron. Many of these beer do not use any pale malts whatsoever, so even accepting that many IPAs are relatively dark, by definition the name doesn’t make sense.
My next least favourite is Cascadian Dark Ale. Firstly, it presumes that the beer uses Cascade hops (I’m not really persuaded that the style was simply named after the Cascade Mountain Range). Many, such as Stone’s Sublimely Self-Righteous do not. Secondly, it obscures a distinction between what I view as being two distinct styles.
My personal preference is to consider such beers as either American Black Ales or American Brown Ales as seen on Beer Advocate. This is for several reasons. Firstly, it recognizes the distinction between beers which are built off of a porter/stout base and those that are built off of a brown ale base. Secondly it more predictably falls into line with past naming practices. American Pale Ales were so named because they used American hops and developed a style that was particular to American breweries. Most, if not all of the beers that I’ve tried in these two categories have used American hop varieties. As well, while I have no concrete proof that it was American breweries that first combined dark malts with liberal hopping, it can’t be denied that it was American craft breweries who most heartily embraced and disseminated these styles.
That said, I’m fine with the term India Brown Ale as I think it fairly obviously tells the drinker what they are getting. Something between a traditional brown ale and an India Pale Ale.
Fine then. Having established (or at least zealously argued) that there are two distinct styles, one might reasonably ask what, if anything makes them discreet beer types? When does a porter become and “American Black Ale”? Is an Imperial Stout that happens to also be highly hopped now something else?
I would argue that at some level, there is a blurry line between many styles. When does an American Pale Ale become an India Pale Ale? When does an India Pale Ale become an Imperial? It could be argued that classifying a beer, like rating it is an inherently subjective exercise. But, I accept the premise that for there to be any logic in the beer world, tasters should have some reference points. In my view, things to look for are:
1) The presence of American hop varieties – Most brewers, when looking to make a ‘traditional’ style will stick with region-specific ingredients. Thus, a ‘porter’ that’s been loaded with Cascade and Chinook is likely doing something different on purpose. That said, I would still consider a beer brewed in the UK using English hops to be within either of the styles should they meet the rest of the criteria.
2) Aroma over bitterness – An ideal American Black/Brown Ale strikes a good balance between the complimentary hop and malt notes. Thus, a dark beer with a very strong hop nose can afford to be less hop-bitter in order to let the malt shine through. A beer that has been dry-hopped (which has a greater impact on aroma) is likely aiming to be an ABA.
3) High(er) alcohol – While many breweries seem to do American Black/Brown Ales north of the 8% line, I would still consider a beer above 5% as being more within the confines of the style. Taking the IPA as archetype, beers from 5.5%-7.5% might be considered ‘regular’ and above that ‘Imperial’
4) Medium body – I would argue that even in the style of American Black Ale, a brewer should aim to have the beer at the ‘thickness’ of a regular porter. While a strong ABA might be opaque, at the point it is leaving the characteristic ‘oil slick’ of a high-ABV Imperial stout, it may be exceeding the bounds of the style. For American Brown Ales, the beer should fall into line with the expectations of an English Brown Ale (see: Wellington Dark, Neustadt 10W30, Black Oak Nut Brown).
5) The brewer’s intention – While I would be the last to tell you to take a brewer at their word alone, it is worth exploring (to an extent) what the brewer meant to make. Yes, Amsterdam’s Tempest Imperial Stout is 100 IBUs and uses American hops, but aside from the fact that the hops are fairly well hidden, the brewery clearly is calling it an Imperial stout. That they put a wax seal on it further indicates that the object is to age it and not actually drink it when the hops are at their most pungent.
Some Beers to Try:
Flying Monkey’s Netherworld Cascadian Dark Ale: 6% / 35 IBU A superb offering from Barrie’s eclectic brewers. Don’t be fooled by the seemingly low IBU count, this beer definitely has a strong hop presence. The focus on aroma hops has allowed them to add complexity at a lower ABV. I’ll give them a pass on the name since they address it quite openly on their website: http://www.theflyingmonkeys.ca/ For reference, I would call this an American Black Ale. Available in the LCBO and Beer Store (and the brewery if you’re near Barrie)
Tree Brewing Hop Head Black IPA: >8% (I’ve seen between 8.2 and 8.8) / 161 IBU. This beer can vary from year to year both in ABV and overall flavour profile. It never goes below ‘very good’ but some years in particular (when it was around 8.4%) were top 10 material. The IBU rating (taken from their website) doesn’t translate into overwhelming bitterness as the malt palate brings to bear notes of molasses and chocolate. Tastes somewhat reminiscent of a Baltic Porter, especially the 8.8% vintage. Done as a fall/winter seasonal and available in the LCBO when out.
Stone Brewing Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale: 8.7% / 90 IBU. Criminally unavailable in Canada, this is, to me, the benchmark American Black Ale. Clearly within the Imperial realm, this beer perfectly encapsulates the strange synergy of extreme flavours that a strong ABA aims to achieve. Both dark roasted malt and big west-coast hops vie for real estate on the bitter parts of your tongue, but it somehow retains the more complex notes of each such as coffee and chocolate in harmony with grapefruit and pine. Worth the hype.
Dogfish Head India Brown Ale: 7.2% / 50 IBU. Claiming to be the original India Brown Ale, this beer provides a good counterpoint to the more outrageous Stone offering as an example of an American Brown Ale. A much more nuanced approach at balancing distinct hop and malt flavours. That said, the beer is still quite bitter and definitely sets itself apart from ‘traditional’ brown ales. Not available in the LCBO.
Buxton Brewery Imperial Black India Pale Ale: 7.5% / 82 IBU. Proof that this style can be made well anywhere. Hits all the classic points of an American black ale balancing a clear citrus zest with dark chocolate. 500ml singles allow for a more economical way to experiment with the style. Currently available in the LCBO.