The newest craze in beer explores the dark side of pale.
By Christopher Staten
Since India black ales emerged on the scene two years ago, there’s hardly been an element of the style that hasn’t been debated: The name, the creator, the profile; it’s all up in the air. But with the style cropping up all over the country in the past 12 months—not to mention earning an official category at the Great American Beer Festival—the conversation, like the buzz, is heating up. So, first things first: What’s an India black ale, anyway?
Imagine the hallmark flavors of an IPA, specifically a West Coast one: Dank resinous and citrusy hops flex their muscle while aggressive, palate-scraping bitterness rips through the mouth. Now, in addition to the style’s quiet, toasty caramel flavors, add a dash of roasted malt.
“In a black IPA, the roast character needs to be muted so it doesn’t clash with the hop character,” explains Mitch Steele, head brewer at Stone Brewing in Escondido, Calif. “You don’t want the intense chocolate of a porter or acrid roast of a stout. It should drink like an IPA, but have that extra color and slight roast character.”
Stone’s Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale first debuted as the brewery’s anniversary ale in 2007. Inspired by a beer Steele tasted while in Vermont (the late Greg Noonan is often credited with creating the style at Vermont Pub & Brewery in the early ’90s), he kept the notion in his back pocket until it was time to pitch ideas for the brewery’s annual anniversary release.
“Greg [Koch] didn’t like the concept at first, but once he tasted what we came up with, he got really excited,” remembers Steele. Using de-husked black malts, Steele was able to maintain the beer’s classic IPA profile while adding chocolate and roast notes without the acrid flavors. It was what he calls Stone’s “‘We nailed it’ kind of moment.”
Three years earlier, and about 1,000 miles north in Baker City, Ore., Tyler Brown and Shawn Kelso of Barley Brown’s had their own moment when they began tinkering with a schwarzbier recipe that would later become Turmoil, the first beer to win gold in the India black ale category.
“We were inspired by a beer from Rogue called Skullsplitter,” remembers Brown.
“Shawn had brought it back from the Oregon coast, and it really jumped out at us. It was a black beer but really hoppy. We took the idea of making a schwarzbier, but to make it hoppy, like a black hoppy ale.” In 2004, Brown and Kelso added dark malts to their regular IPA recipe and ended up with their version of an India black ale, the same recipe they pour today.
India black ales will probably never be as ubiquitous as IPAs, but with the momentum behind this style, it can’t be ignored. Many brewers are still honing their recipes to achieve perfect levels of roast and hop flavors, while offerings from Stone and Barley Brown’s have set the standard. The name, however, is still up for grabs: The Brewers Association (BA) defines the style as an India black ale, but not everyone agrees. Some refer to the beer as a Black IPA, while northwestern brewers in the shadows of the Cascade mountain range claim ownership with the name Cascadian dark ale.
“The BA calls it an India black ale, and I’m OK with that,” says Steele. “Cascadian dark ale? It doesn’t really tell you what the beer is. I try to stay out of that piece of it, but the Vermont brewers have a point in that the beer originated in Vermont, so why give it a Cascadian name?”
Brown, on the other hand—who subtitles Turmoil a C.D.A. for Cascadian dark ale—begs to differ.
“You can’t have a black pale ale, so it doesn’t really make sense,” he notes.
Regardless of what it’s called and where it originated, this beer’s growing fan base can agree on one thing: This is possibly the most buzzed-about official style American brewers have created to date, and it’s worthy of all the hype. –C.S.
THREE TO TRY
Deschutes Hop in the Dark: Deschutes’ version is a diverse union of floral, piney and citrusy hops, which brighten up the dark malt additions. Hints of chocolate, coffee and a dash of roast blend for a creamy, multidimensional profile.
21st Amendment Back in Black: Cocoa, coffee and toasty malts lay a foundation across the tongue, as spicy, orange-zest hops bloom. A brawny bitter wave cuts through this base, leaving behind lightly sweet pine.
Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale: This beer packs huge grapefruit and pine hop flavors, which play on top of rich caramel and chocolate. A hint of coffee roast—just enough to tone down the hops—peaks in the swallow for a refreshingly dry finish.