We’re back with another round of blind taste testing. This time we’re tackling a relatively new but increasingly popular style of beer, the Black IPA. As was the case with our American Robust Porter blind tasting, my friend Mark Richards organized and hosted this event in his basement on a snowy Saturday in mid-March. Over the course of 3-4 hours eight judges sampled ten Black IPAs. As you’ll see below different breweries have quite different ideas of what a Black IPA should be, with interpretations that range from an IPA in everything but appearance to a Robust Porter.
What is a Black IPA?
There are many aspects of the Black IPA style that are not universally agreed upon, some purists don’t even consider Black IPA to be a distinct style. These people, whom you can identify from the Reinheitsgebot tattoo on their forearm, would assert that a Black IPA is nothing more than a Porter with a generous helping of American hops. While I’m not the kind of hybrid-loving radical who who would own a labradoodle or drive an El Camino, I’m willing to say that Black IPAs are just as much a style as American Wheat Ales or Chile Beers.
There is also controversy surrounding the name Black IPA itself. After all how can a beer be simultaneously “Black” and “Pale”, and nothing in its short history or its ingredients has anything to do with India. For such reasons, some in the beer world have suggested alternative names—Cascadian Dark Ale, India Dark Ale, Dark Bitter Ale, and India Black Ale among others. Andy Crouch has written a nice post entitled “The Black IPA Problem” that goes into this question in some detail. I would direct you there for a more in depth discussion of the subject, but the pertinent points from Andy’s post and the other material that I could find online are as follows.
New Englander’s trace the origin of this style to a beer called Blackwatch IPA first brewed at the Vermont Pub and Brewery (VPB) in Burlington, VT in 1994. The brewer was Glenn Walter and the owner of VPB was Greg Noonan, who is an important figure in the American Craft Beer scene. Blackwatch IPA led to the Alchemist brewery releasing a beer called “El Hefe Black IPA” in 2003, which went on to inspire other beers of this ilk including Stone’s Sublimely Self Righteous Ale.
There is another camp, led by Northwest Brewing News writer Abe Goldman-Armstrong who maintains that the style should be called Cascadian Dark Ale because the northwest hops brewed in the shadows of the Cascade Mountains are essential to the taste profile of this beer. This suggestion is greeted by New England beer geeks with a level of enthusiasm comparable to a socialist candidate in the New Hampshire primaries.
I have no interest to weigh in on the controversy surrounding the name and origins of this style. India Black Ale seems the most logical, and Cascadian Dark Ale is the coolest sounding (to me). I can also understand why marketing types aren’t crazy about calling it Dark Bitter Ale. For the remainder of this post I’m going to follow the lead of the market and use the name Black IPA, or BIPA for short.
Despite the lack of agreement on the proper name there is general agreement on the defining characteristics of the style. A Black IPA should first of all be black (30-40+ SRM), and secondly should have the citrus and/or floral flavors and aromas associated with the IPA style. There should also be some caramel and chocolate flavors from the roasted malts, but astringency and burnt flavors from the malts are not appropriate. The expected alcohol content is 6.0-7.8% ABV with moderate to high bitterness (60-90 IBU).
Our BIPA selection was comprised of the following regionally distributed beers that one can find in better Columbus beer stores: Back in Black (21st Ammendment), Hop Odyssey Black IPA (Green Flash), Noonan’s Black IPA (Smuttynose), Furry Black IPA (North Peak), Hop-Strike Black IPA (Tommyknocker), Death of a Contract Brewer (He’brew), Hoppy Feet (Clown Shoes), Jukebox Hero (Revolution), Black Cannon (Heavy Seas) and Mendicino Black IPA. Stone’s Sublimely Self Righteous Ale and Uinta’s Dubhe Imperial Black IPA were not included because they have higher ABV and we felt they were more accurately classified as Imperial BIPAs (both are excellent beers though). Since initially posting this article several people have suggested Firestone Walker’s Wookey Jack. Sadly they don’t distribute to Ohio, but they may distribute where you live.
Just like the American Robust Porter Blind Tasting event that took place back in February the judges were blind to the identities of the beers and we were using the BJCP scoring system (50 points in total, divided into 12 points for aroma, 3 points for appearance, 20 points for flavor, 5 points for mouthfeel, and 10 points for overall impression). The major difference from the Porter event was an expansion in the number of judges, up to eight. So Mark divided the judges into two teams. Team 1 consisted of Hans, Tim, George and Jeremy, while I was joined on Team 2 by Tom, Ralph and Josh.
The scores were translated into a rank order for each team and the ranks assigned by each team were added together to give a total score for each beer. For example if Beer A was ranked 2nd by Team 1 and 4th by Team 2 its score would be 2 + 4 = 6. This leads to a scale where the best possible score is a 2 and the worst is a 20. Once the dust settled the beers could be sorted into three tiers, as described below.
Two beers emerged as the favorites of the evening, tying for first place were Green Flash’s Hop Odyssey (favored by Team 1) and He’brew’s Death of a Contract Brewer (favored by Team 2).
1(T). Death of a Contract Brewer by He’brew (ABV = 7%, IBU = 70, Availability = Year round) – In this beer the hops and malts work very nicely together. Grapefruit from the hops are complimented by caramel from the malts. The exquisite balance is paired with a creamy mouthfeel and a clean finish. He’Brew has hit the sweet spot between an IPA and a Porter with this beer. (Total Score = 4)
1(T). Hop Odyssey Black IPA by Green Flash (ABV = 7.2%, IBU = 85, Availability = Feb-Mar) – This one comes down firmly on the IPA end of the spectrum. There is plenty of citrus and pine, but compared to a typical West Coast IPA the bitterness is restrained, and the finish is clean. If you like the aromas of an IPA but not so much the bitterness this is a beer for you. The only complaint would be the lack of much in the nose or taste that one could associate with the dark malts. If blindfolded I’m not sure I would guess that it was a Black IPA rather than an ordinary IPA. (Total Score = 4)
The next three beers were well received but each had some flaws that kept it out of the first tier.
3. Hoppy Feet Black IPA by Clown Shoes (ABV = 7%, IBU = 80, Availability = Year round) – Both the hops and malts make their presence known in this beer, bringing a mixture of citrus and coffee to the party. It was probably the most effervescent beer of the night. Unlike the first tier beers some bitterness from the burnt malts lingers a little on the finish. (Total Score = 7)
4(T). Jukebox Hero by Revolution (ABV = 7.5%, IBU = 75, Availability = Mar-Apr) – This beer has a big, beautiful hop nose that is reminiscent of an aromatic IPA. This raises your hopes, but unfortunately it fails to fully deliver on that tantalizing promise. The color and mouthfeel are the lightest of any beer in the contest, and the hop flavors are not as bold as the aroma. It’s an easy drinking beer but beyond its nose, Jukebox Hero is more like a “Woman in Black” than a “Jukebox Hero” (the 2nd and 8th tracks on the “4” album, respectively, for those not intimately familiar with Foreigner’s discography). (Total Score = 8)
4(T). Noonan Black IPA by Smuttynose (ABV = 6.5%, IBU =?, Availability = Feb-May) – The name of this beer is a nod to Blackwatch IPA brewed at Greg Noonan’s Vermont Pub and Brewery. No questions here about where this New Hampshire brewery feels the style originated. The hops and malts make near equal contributions. The citrus and bitterness of an IPA are discernable along with roasty notes from the malts. Although nicely balanced this beer leans just slightly in favor of the malts, which keeps the hops from expressing their fresh, fruity bouquet at the levels seen in the first tier beers. (Total Score = 8)
These last five beers were clearly a notch below the others. A common theme is the malts overpowering the hops. As a general rule these beers have more in common with Porters than with IPAs.
6(T). Black Cannon by Heavy Seas (ABV = 7.25%, IBU = ?, Availability = Jan-Mar) – The balance has now shifted in favor of the malts. The aroma is fleeting. Coffee flavors from the malts have the upper hand in the taste, but some citrus from the hops does manage to peek through. (Total Score = 15)
6(T). Back in Black by 21st Ammendment (ABV = 6.8%, IBU = 65, Availability = Year round) – We’re firmly on the dark side now. Discernable hop flavors are still present but they have been pushed to the margin. (Total Score = 15)
6(T). Mendicino Black IPA (ABV = 6.0%, IBU = ?, Availability = Spring) – In this beer the hops and malts tend to cancel each other out, rather than work together, particularly in the mid-palate. The net result was not particularly inspiring. (Total Score = 15)
9. Hop Strike Black IPA by Tommyknocker (ABV = 6.5%, IBU = 78, Availability = ?) – This is a malt dominated beer. Both teams felt that it would be a fairly decent example of a porter, but given the name one would expect to actually taste something that could be traced back to the hops. (Total Score = 16)
10. Furry Black IPA by North Peak (ABV = 7.2%, IBU = ?, Availability = November) – Coffee and chocolate are at the fore of both the aroma and taste. There is a touch of bitterness from the burnt malts that lingers on the palate at the finish. Did someone sneak a porter into the competition? (Editors Note: To be fair this beer is released in November and our contest was in March, so it’s possible that the hop character has faded with time.) (Total Score = 18)
The taste profiles of these beers spanned the entire gamut from Porter to American IPA, with our judging panel taking a more positive view of the IPA-leaning offerings. While that variability might be used as an argument that Black IPAs are not a distinct style, some of the beers definitely hit a sweet spot that was neither Porter nor IPA. The staying power of these beers remains to be seen. I enjoyed several of the beers we tasted, almost all of which were new to me, but I wasn’t blown away by any. Nonetheless, given the current popularity of hoppy beers I predict that Black IPAs will become a regular part of the American beer landscape.
Until I sat down to write up this post I didn’t realize that spring was Black IPA season, but as it turns out half of the beers on our list are released only in the spring months. I suppose Black IPAs are a logical transition from the dark beers of winter to the fruity, floral IPAs that are an ideal fit for summer. If this post has worked up your appetite for a Black IPA I may have inadvertently put you in something of a quandary, as many of these beers will have disappeared from the shelves by the time you read this post. Don’t fret though as the two beers that finished at the top of my team’s list, Death of a Contract Brewer and Hoppy Feet, are available year round. If your taste buds aren’t already familiar with the style bending goodness of a Black IPA I recommend you seek out one of these beers, or take it to the next level and go straight to the hard stuff with Stone’s Sublimely Self Righteous Ale or Uinta’s Dubhe Imperial Black IPA.