Saturday, 14 February 2015

Black IPA - Innovative Beer Style or Oxymoron?

M&S Special

I have always been uneasy with both the term and style of Black IPA; a misnomer if ever there was one, and an oxymoron to boot! How can a beer which, according to its name, should be pale at the same time also be black?

Well obviously it can’t, and I think those brewers across the pond, who first came up with this idea back in 2011, have done the world of beer a grave disservice. Black IPA can rightly be described as a gimmick and a definite example of “style over substance”. But hey, wait a minute; no such style exists so let’s invent one.

Now you can just imagine the scene, it’s late at night and a few “over-refreshed” American craft-brewers are sitting in a bar, and quite naturally are discussing beer. Nothing wrong so far, but as the night draws on and the beer continues to flow, our brewers move on to comparing how many different styles of beers they’ve tried, and how this compares with their own portfolios.

One of them mentions the Great American Beer Festival and the 90 odd different styles which are used to categorise, and then judge, beers exhibited at the festival. One brewer then brings the GABF site up on his phone/tablet and they run through the various styles, and sub-styles of beer. Virtually every type of beer imaginable is covered, but wait, one brewer has an idea and after several moments of beer-fuelled discussion they decide to come up with a completely new style.
“Be good for business”, says one member of the company. “One in the eye for those stuck-up sticky-beaks running the show”, says another. And so you can see how, without too much imagination, the concept of Black IPA was born. So one brewery’s off-beat idea, conceived in a moment of over-indulgence, is soon copied by other breweries and before long the whole thing snowballs.

It doesn’t take long for the concept to cross the Atlantic, and before you know it, breweries in the UK are falling over themselves to rush out their own Black IPA, and trendy beer-writers are trying to outdo each other by singing its praises. Not one of them has bothered to pause for thought and think, this really is nonsense”. However, it is much more than nonsense, and a classic example of the story of  “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.

I’ve tasted a few Black IPA’s and quite frankly they all disappoint. At best they taste like an overly-hopped porter, whilst at worst they resemble nothing more than a stout; and a poor one at that! Here are some notes I made after sampling a couple of different bottles of Black IPA, which I was given for Christmas.

Meantime Greenwich Black IPA 5.7% - This is a beer brewed exclusively for Marks & Spencer. Described on the label as “A rich caramel Black IPA inspired by American craft-beers”, it does what it says on the tin. Not unpleasant at all, but still rather confusing. A good beer, as might be expected from Meantime, and packed full of flavour, but I would have preferred to see it labelled as a porter or a stout.

Collaboration brew from Oddbins
AleChemy Brewing Co & Oddbins No. 3 Black IPA 5.0% - another Black IPA, this time a collaboration brew between AleChemy of Livingston of West Lothian & Oddbins (the off-licence people).

Unpleasantly bitter and harsh-tasting to my palate; probably from the over-use of roasted barley. Jet black in colour, with a thin, pale-yellow head. Not much more I can say about this beer, apart from an unusual and slightly sinister-looking label. Oh, I nearly forgot to add, I won’t be buying it again!

These experiences, combined with those from tasting cask Black IPA in pubs, have been enough to put me off this totally contrived style for life. I doubt whether I am alone in this.

Footnote: take a look at the Great American Beer Festival site here, and the list of beer styles recognised by the organisation. You will find no mention of Black IPA.


Anonymous said...

Shirley Black IPAs were in existence before 2011.

Paul Bailey said...

Anonymous, I carried out some research on Black IPA's, before writing this article. The accepted view is the "style" appeared in the United States in late 2011.

I certainly don't recall this type of beer having been around for long.

StringersBeer said...

I think the GABF would be calling these "American-Style Black Ale", an umbrella term for the (so called) black IPAs & Cascadian dark ales

Ed said...

I must confess I once went to the bar and bought beer when free Black IPA was on offer. Not to my taste.

Mike said...

The secret is not to use the right type of roasted malt that does not impart the bitterness you associate with roasted grains. It is possible

Mike said...

Bah edited and then not well of course "is use"

Paul Bailey said...

Chocolate malt, perhaps?

The AleChemy/Oddbins No. 3 definitely had too much of the "wrong type" of roasted malt.

Bryan the Beerviking said...

BIPA is the modern descendant of Export India Porter, the hoppy black ale sent to India for the troops - IPA was for the officers & civil servants.

oldgeezer said...

I think 2011 is when the style was acknowledged but the Americans accept the first black ipa was brewed in 1997 and Stones-sublimely self righteous ale has been around since 2007.I have liked most of the black ipa,si have tried.

StringersBeer said...

If you're actually interested in this, Mitch Steele's IPA book covers it.

Simon said...

You haven't really tried any of the better examples of the style. And it is a style that can be absolutely phenomenal if you don't have your head in the sand and your hands over your ears.

Look for something more in the 7.4% range, and from a keg. It's a style which, like quite frankly pretty much any decent style, really shines that way.

Paul Bailey said...

I understand what you are saying Simon, (and StringersBeer), and may be tempted to give a few of the stronger Black IPA’s a try; should I come across them.

There’s an interesting piece in Draft magazine, which I picked up on, following a link from Mike Cowbourne at Okells Brewery. See what you make of it here.

Tyson said...

Yes, the GABF put them under the "American Dark Ale" category. Originally they tried to get everyone to call them Cascadian Dark Ales and some breweries over here did produce some with that name. However, Black IPA-a legitimate style IMO-became the de facto name everywhere but the States. They're still kind of sulking about it

DaveS said...

I have to say, this post reads like a rather elaborate conspiracy theory created to avoid conceding the point that not everyone likes the same things!

I mean, I don't like cucumber, but I don't write blog posts claiming that the cucumber slices that crop up in an annoying proportion of pre-made sandwiches are a cynical gimmick invented by a shadowy group of manipulative sandwich manufacturers and that everyone just pretends to like them because they want to look cool.

For the record, I've had quite a lot of black IPAs that I wasn't that into - it's hardly my favourite style - but a few that I loved. Buxton's Imperial Black is fantastic.

Paul Bailey said...

Definitely no conspiracy theory and, for the record, I don’t like cucumber either; in fact I remove it when as the commentator points out “it crops up in an annoying proportion of pre-made sandwiches”.

Each to their own, of course, but to me the whole concept of a Black IPA is complete nonsense. It appears I am not alone in my annoyance at this concept; respected beer writer, Roger Protz, has been quoted as describing the style as “an insult to the intelligence and to a historic beer style".

Here, here; let’s completely bastardise other beer styles, shall we, under the pretext of being cool and trendy. For this, gentle readers, is what this whole nonsense is all about. It’s the “Emperor’s new clothes”, all over again, and yet few in the trendy world of craft brewing are prepared to admit this. Why not go for a “pale stout”, or an über-hopped mild? No doubt the craft glitterati would go for these, and then enthuse on “Untapped” about how marvellous they are.

Conspiracy theory no, DaveS; pretentious nonsense, bordering on bull-shit, yes!