It seems like only yesterday that I wrote my original post on the new Brewers Association style guidelines last year that recognized the new style of American-Style India Black Ale, and how with the decision, we could sarcastically claim that the formerly common name of Black IPA for the style was dead. Well, now we can say the same for American-Style India Black Ale! That was quick. The dropping of the “India” designation is one that I welcome. There’s nothing about this beer that has anything do with India, unless brewers are willing to claim a connection to the porters that were exported to India from England in the 17-1800s, and would have been heavily hopped, much like these modern beers and just like the eventual “Pale Ale prepared for the India market” that turned in to the more familiar India Pale Ale that we recognize today. I don’t know of anyone making this claim, and it seems to go against the motivations for the genesis of the current style, which were about dark color with the flavor of a regular IPA.
At the Great American Beer Festival this past fall, the first awards were given out for this new style with the gold going to Turmoil from Barley Brown’s Brew Pub in Baker City, Oregon. I haven’t had Turmoil, but I did have their Chaos stout this past summer, which is basically a Black IPA with a regular American stout malt bill, so a hoppy American stout, so, um, now I’m just confusing myself. Anyway it was a very nice hoppy stout and I can see that given less roasted malt flavor it could be the perfect Black IPA. The bronze metal went to Stone’s Sublimely Self Righteous Ale, which was the first Black IPA that I ever had (on my 21st birthday no less, back when it was called 12th Anniversary Ale) and arguably the beer that brought the style to commercial prominence.
Moving on to this year’s GABF, the beers will likely be the same, but the category will go by a different name. I’m actually fine with American-Style Black Ale, even though it’s very vague and will leave the style open to a lot more interpretation than it every started out with the basic gimmick of a black beer that tasted almost just like a regular IPA. Maybe that’s just the way the style is going. Maybe people want roasty flavor, but just not as much as a stout. If that’s the way that things are going, then I think we should just call a spade a spade and possibly modify the Robust Porter category to account for more hop aroma and flavor.
The other possibility is that Black IPA really is dead and the gimmick was never meant to live on. The beers become roastier and instead of calling them hoppy porters (which is what they are) we make up a completely new name. They’re black (well, usually dark red-brown) and undoubtedly American in style (we do love our hops more that any other brewing country), so there are worse things that you could call them. I was never a fan of Cascadian Dark Ale, as it implied that all the beers were from the Cascade region, which is not the case. Beers going by that name, with Deschutes’ Hop in the Dark being the most prominent example, were often roastier in flavor than I thought was proper for a black IPA. If that is the new paradigm of the style and we are going to agree on calling it American-Style Black Ale, I’m fine with Black IPA becoming a more obscure out-of-style creation that stays true to the original idea of fooling the drinker by presenting a black beer that you would think was a regular IPA if you had your eyes closed.
As a final note I want to address the claims that Black IPA is a stupid name because calling a beer both “black” and “pale” is contradictory. Yes, it is, but I’d like to point out that the Germans call their dark wheat beers “dunkelweisse” which means “dark white”–certainly a contradiction of terms, right?. They understand that a weisse (white) is a wheat beer and not literally a white beer, just as we know that an IPA (nobody even says “India pale ale” anymore) is a hoppy beer that isn’t too dark. Black IPA most effectively communicates to the consumer what it is that they are getting. Such is the essence of naming a style in the first place. Outside of competitions, which consumers couldn’t give a rat’s ass about the vast majority of the time, it’s the only reason that we really need style names.
Here’s the new style guidelines from the Brewers Association in case you are interested:
American-Style Black Ale
“American-style Black Ale is perceived to have medium high to high hop bitterness, flavor and aroma with medium-high alcohol content, balanced with a medium body. Fruity, floral and herbal character from hops of all origins may contribute character. The style is further characterized by a moderate degree of caramel malt character and dark roasted malt flavor and aroma. High astringency and high degree of burnt roast malt character should be absent.
Original Gravity (oPlato) 1.056-1.075 (14-18.2 oPlato) ● Apparent Extract/Final Gravity (oPlato) 1.012-1.018 (3-4.5 oPlato) ●
Alcohol by Weight (Volume) 5-6% (6 -7.5%) ● Bitterness (IBU) 50-70 ● Color SRM (EBC) 35+ (70+ EBC)”