Call them black IPAs, or Cascadian dark ales, or American black ales, or India black ales, but don’t call them a flash in the pan; this hybrid style has been on an upswing for years. I’ll let others argue the name until their voices go hoarse; I’m calling them black IPAs, since that’s what I most commonly see on labels. The “black” part of the name refers to the beer’s dark color, derived from roasted malts, while the IPA refers to American hop character (and often, but not always, the base style). It’s a style that originated in the Pacific Northwest, which is why some prefer to dub them Cascadian dark ales (though Vermont Pub & Brewery‘s late Greg Noonan also claims an early version of the style). Now breweries across the country have taken up the style, putting their own spins on this bitter-toasty fusion that, when done well, offers a sort of best-of-both-worlds for malt and hop fans.
But because no BJCP guidelines exist for the style yet, different breweries’ versions are all over the map. Black IPAs currently fall under the specialty beer judging category, and the organization plans to issue an update to its guidelines very soon that includes some notes on the substyle. For now, though, the black IPAs we’ve tasted exhibit a range of flavors, from the dark roast of a porter to the berry-tinged oomph of a barleywine. Curious to try the style in its full rainbow of flavors? Here’s where to start:
4 Hands Alter Ego
This beer begs to be poured from the can to a glass for maximum appreciation of its chocolate-covered orange aroma. On the sip, that same citrus joins with mild roast and noticeable sweetness to hit all the flavor bases. New to black IPAs? Start here.
New Glarus Black Top
A sneaky 6.9% ABV is cloaked in sweet, lightly roasted chocolate malts that make this a mellow, easy drinker. Palates averse to high hop bitterness will want to reach for this; hops are soft and bright with notes of light pine and lemon.
10 Barrel Easy Black IPA
We universally love this complex beer for its orange pith bitterness that connects with acrid espresso roast to perfectly encapsulate this style. Bitter in all the best ways and sessionable at 5%, we give major props to 10 Barrel for this one; say what you will about the brewery’s craft cache. #hatersgonnahate.
Starr Hill Sabbath
Smell the aromas on this beer; is this a hoppy porter? A nose of chocolate and vanilla balloons off the thick, brown head, but the sip is all blackberry and plum with bitter citrus and cut grass hop notes at the finish. This tastes much meatier than its 7.2% ABV.
Six Row Arch Nemesis Midnight
This 88-point imperial black IPA blooms with a biscuit- and wheat bread-laced head studded with pine. An 8% ABV is well-hidden with sweet hops and licorice. Well-balanced and full, this would make an excellent starter imperial black IPA.
Despite its 10.3% ABV (!), this creamy imperial version is all flavor and no heft. Orange blossom and hard candy aroma awaken the palate for a rush of coffee bitterness and juicy citrus hops. Try to detect the low-lying fig notes that hum in the background.