Black IPAs, What’s In A Name? {Brewers Rant}

April 12, 2012 11:20 am |

Caution: contains beer nerdiness and may hurt someone’s feelings.

Black IPA Brewers Rant
Black IPA, the new kid on the block with a lot of controversy following it. It’s been called many a name so far. Cascadian Dark Ale, Black IPA, India Dark Ale, even pale stout. It’s these myriad of names that really belies the problem with the style.

Nobody knows what it is.  Is it an American IPA with no roast, but some color, making it a deep brown color? Is it a weakened stout with a little bit more hop character? Is it an imperial hop juice driven raging elixir that includes the best parts of both IPA and stout heraldry? Fortunately, and unfortunately, the answer is yes.

This great enigma started in an entirely other realm.  The source of much of the world’s beer knowledge and styles: Germany.  The Germans have been brewing a wonderful pilsner with a quirky little twist. They’ve been using malted barley that has been roasted, and had the outer-most husk removed.  This grain adds lots of color, but none of that familiar roast and astringent bite found in your more common dark beers. These “Schwartzbiers” are very traditional and are a great style to search for.

In the tradition of all great American beers, domestic brewers spun this style. American two row barley replaced the German Pilsner malts, and the bolder American hops shoved out the noble hops of Western Europe. But the curious de-bittered black malts remained. This is a pivoting argument regarding this style of beer. Do you need to use specialized black malt? Must the Black IPAs have no roast character? Or is a hint of roast important to defining this genre of IPA?
Once again the answer is yes.

The description of my Black IPA will express my opinion of what this style should encompass.  Discussion is encouraged; narrow-minded criticism can be kept with the rest of the knuckle-dragging hairy-assed mouth-breathers out back.

I start with a solid Imperial IPA base. About 10% should be simple sugars to keep a light body.  At least 100 IBU’s should be balanced against a malt bill that is balanced, with just enough caramel and specialty malts to create complexity.

The way we bring this beer to the darkside is unorthodox, at best. All grains are mashed, with the exception of the roasted malts. We use black patent. Yes, Black Patent. I did not stutter. Right before our vorlauf, the crushed black patent is dumped on top of the grain bed. During sparge, color and minimal roast flavors are extracted. This beer must be a playground of hops. I first wort for bitterness. 10, 5 and 0 minute additions, along with dry-hopping provide adequate myrcene saturation. An English ale strain further defines my beer with slight fruit and noticeable earthy tones. The product is an 8% ABV hop villain that is making people talk.

This style of beer is badly in need of some parameters. There is no concrete set of definitions with which to compare this beer.  Commercial examples range from a West Coast Pale Ale with a really good tan, to a stout that has had its unmentionables removed. And that’s  the problem. Both of these extremes are examples of a Black IPA.  Style guidelines give beer drinkers a set of definitions to compare from. They may define a style, yes, but what they really do is set the ground rules for a discussion of good beer. With the proper ground rules in play, Black IPA will grow into the respectable palate-defiling, hop-coma inducing, ridiculed, revered style that I know it is.

So let’s discuss- what do you think should define a Black IPA?