Among the many wonderful things about craft beer, one of the most wonderful is the variety of beer being brewed all over the world, from ancient and traditional styles to wild experiments and flights of fancy.
Unless you’re one of the few remaining unreconstructed wine snobs, who pout and sniff and say, “I just don’t like beer,” it’s not much of a challenge to find a style that will suit your palate. Beyond that, there are beers for every season, occasion, cuisine and dish.
But, I will admit, among all that diversity and seemingly endless choices, there are still beer styles I don’t embrace with open arms. Give me malty, hoppy, crispy or refreshing any day. Sour, I need to consider a bit more carefully. Same with smoky. I want to be wooed, not assaulted by those strong aromas and flavors. And I want them to come dancing with some good balance.
And then there’s Black IPA — or Cascadian Dark Ale, as the West Coasters like to call it. In essence, it’s a dark ale, with roasty malts, a good bit of citrusy American hops and an alcohol range that tends toward the higher side.
Currently, Black IPA isn’t included under the IPA category in the style guidelines of the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP). But in recent years, the Brewers Association has included a category for judging at the Great American Beer Festival called American-Style Black Ale.
In 2012, Firestone Walker’s Wookey Jack Black IPA won a Gold Medal in the Black Ale category. Other commercial examples include 21st Amendment Back in Black, Boulevard Grainstorm Black Rye IPA, Duck-Rabbit Hoppy Bunny American Black Ale, Heavy Seas Black Cannon IPA, Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous and Victory Yakima Glory.
Not long ago, Marietta’s Red Hare released Bitter Hearts Double Black IPA, a complex black brew, with a combo of Crystal and Midnight Wheat malts and Falconer’s Flight, Chinook and Cascade hops, that was dry-hopped with Summit, Cascade and Columbus whole cone hops.
To my palate, Bitter Hearts drinks like a robust American porter, with notes of strong black tea and chocolate. In a blind tasting, I would not pick it out as an IPA. It’s one of those beers I would call a head shaker. I think it’s interesting. Probably not a true Black IPA. But maybe that’s why I like it.
For me, that combination of roasted malts and citrusy hops is a very delicate balancing act. Bad examples tend to be bitter in a very unpleasant way. That’s my complaint.
Discussing the style with a high-ranking BJCP judge at a recent beer festival, he said that a perfect example should marry the malts and hops in a subtle way that becomes greater than the sum of its parts. But he admitted that gestalt is as rare as a unicorn.
Just over the horizon, look for Sweetwater Some Strange. The first Dank Tank series product to emerge from the brewery’s new 250-barrel brew house expansion, the limited-time release is a 9 percent alcohol-by-volume Double Black IPA. It’s brewed with coffee and chocolate malts, hopped with Amarillo, Pacific Jade and Zythos, and dry-hopped with Falconer’s Flight, Falconer’s 7 C’s and Topaz.
Those who’ve had an early taste compare it to Sweetwater IPA with a shot of espresso. Now that might be a head shaker, too.
What do you think about Black IPA? Have you tried one you like? Or are you still wondering?
— By Bob Townsend, AJC Drink blog.