why we should cherish the term Black IPA

why we should cherish the term Black IPA

This is not a post about the history or origins of the black IPA style – others have researched that thoroughly. Suffice to say it’s a beer, which in its current guise became popular in America then in the UK and now across the world. I’ve had Danish, Dutch and Italian takes on it. I’m talking about Black IPA today. I’m also being selfishly place specific: Britain where the term has – up until now – trumped rival terms like Cascadian Black or India Black Ale.


I first noticed a change in the vernacular at the recent St Albans Beer Festival. Staff T-shirts were branded with Farr Brew’s Blacklisted IBA – India Black Ale. I then clocked a bottle of the London Beer Lab’s India Black Ale in a beer shop. There’s also Wishbone Brewery’s Tartarus India Black Ale and a quick Google search has thrown up Vibrant Forest’s Metropolis India Black Ale. So I’m not going mad – the term is gaining currency in the U.K.

Cascadian Black sounds sexy and links to its ties in the Pacific Northwest of the States but the tale goes back further. India Black Ale also severs its connection with history by omitting IPA. Though Black IPAs have no modern link with India, this more contemporary American take on the style follows on from IPAs as brewed in the US – resurrected and reinvigorated from those of the days of the British Empire. It carries through a journey that leads to its current incarnation. Neither Cascadian Black nor India Black Ale do (though the former’s more legitimate to me).

Maybe this recent experience can help illustrate what I mean. When in doubt, always return to the pub:

20150223_171958Earlier in the year I was sat at the bar of The Verulam Arms which brews its own beer. On cask was Mediocria Firma – one of their cask bitters surmounted by a carved wooden badge. Mediocria Firma is the motto of the Bacon family (his inheritors the Verulam family own nearby Gorehambury Estate and get their title from Verulamium – the Roman name for St Albans). This motto has always puzzled me as it seems to say mediocrity is best, i.e: “be crap!”

A gentleman with a plummy voice entered and sat down to my right. He remarked on the pump clip.
“Oh. You can’t have done Latin at school!” he announced. Interesting opening line. It made me wonder how it would go down in other pubs. Fortunately, St Albans is quite posh so umbrage wasn’t taken. The man explained that he’d been a pupil at the prestigious St Albans Boys School (Stephen Hawking was a young student too) where he’d been taught Latin. Patronising arrogance aside, he did go on to cast light on the Latin motto: It was a common misapprehension that it was two words. Mediocria looks like it should mean mediocre but it doesn’t – it’s actually two words: Medioc and Ria – Middle and Road. It therefore means the middle road is best or keep to the straight path.

This puts a completely different spin on it and throws the motto open to being about doggedness, cutting the Gordian knot, compromising to achieve. It’s loads better than “be crap!”

I use this example as a very loose parallel with the term Black IPA: on the surface, it seems wrong and the bit that doesn’t make sense is based on an assumption. Black IPA is only an oxymoron through one sense: visually.


But what’s in a colour? It’s the Buddha Beers, the Carlsbergs and the Bulmers that entice people via the eyes with colouring agents, head retention agents and now even hazing agents.

Oxymoron is rarely abuse of the English language but a clever use of it and by chance rather than by design, the term Black IPA is as sharp as the term “deafening silence”. We should be identifying Black IPAs with out palates not our eyes.

Just look at it this way: a beer style defined by the fact that a roast chocolate malt aroma – the black, is then overlaid by the fruity verdure of new world hops – the modern IPA. This means we’re identifying the style using the full capability of our sensory apparatus – an area where corporate brands whose recipes are predicated by spreadsheet brewing cannot reach. We have a distinct aromatic and gustatory sensation whereas they have a colour chart. We have a new chapter in an historical sequence that’s been developing for over a century. They have prime time advertising.

Black IPA divides beer lovers – a sign that it’s special. We could use another word for divides when it’s used in the context of separating discerning drinkers: reinvents.

How can a beer be both an India Pale Ale and black? Easily. Just taste it.

The humble shoehorn

The humble shoehorn

The post I had envisaged writing has been ruined by research. This often happens. I was planning to chart the change in cask ale at a CAMRA beer festival over the last five years. I suspected – and it’s hardly controversial – that tastes were drifting away from the bitters and golden ales to the IPAs, porters, black IPAs, rye ales and fruit sours. In a way, that assumption has been borne out but not in the way I’d anticipated; the results are wearing camouflage.


The only beer festival I’ve been to each time in the past five years is the St Albans Beer and Cider Festival thrown each summer in the Alban Arena. Not only have I visited and volunteered, but retained each year’s brochure with the beer lists. Over the course of the lustrum (five years to you and me), this literature is what I’m basing my findings on. It won’t be 100% accurate because as each festival’s set up, some beers never arrive, some don’t get drunk because of cask or ale defects whilst others are substituted at the last minute. Notwithstanding all that, I’m taking the lists at face value.

First I counted the overall cask tally and then the amount of each style within it.

The amount of golden ales has increased and then dropped. The peak was 140 in 2014 (out of a total of 348) and has come down to a low of 75 out of a list of 337 in 2016. Other traditional styles – the stouts, porters, milds and barley wines have stayed within similar margins each summer.


From 2012, the bitters make up just under half but that proportion obviously dropped right? Except it didn’t. It went up. This year, over 50% (180 out of 337) of the beers on offer were bitters. This didn’t seem right.

I then scrutinised the bitters a bit more carefully. Unlike the GBBF, the festival at St Albans hasn’t included the increasingly popular IPA in its categories. By extension, it hasn’t confirmed black IPAs , American IPAs or DIPAs in its flock either. Amazingly, all these developing styles have instead been shoe horned into the bitter or golden ale category.

Here’s a small sample of some of the “bitters”: Dark Star Green Hop IPA, Red Squirrel Double American IPA, Thornbridge Jaipur and Siren Craft Brew Liquid Mistress.

dscf4868And a similar taster of some of the golden ales: William Brothers Joker IPA, Deuchars IPA, JO C’s Knot Just Another IPA and Oakham Ales Green Devil. Granted they’re all golden in colour but beer isn’t a paint chart but a sensory experience.

Stout, porter and mild all get their own colour tag yet they’re often difficult to distinguish. It’s hard to get a Rizla rolling paper between the first two.

There were just twelve milds at this year’s festival (including Timothy Taylor’s Golden Best – this, I think, was just an honest publishing error). There were in the region of 27 beers that self-identify as IPAs or could be included in the broad definition. There were also a number of self-proclaimed black IPAs or black india ales including the beer advertised on the staff festival T shirt – Farr Brew’s Blacklisted India Black Ale. Yet they’re all bitters or golden ales according to South Herts CAMRA!

This year even saw the entry of some barrel-aged beers, Saison and fruit sours – all on cask. Each was duly baptised as a bitter or golden ale. A locally brewed bottle beer – AleCraft’s Sonoma Double IPA weighing in at 8% – has during the course of the lustrum been both bitter and golden ale. It’s never been able to “come out” as what it really is to the family.

The problem is twofold:

Firstly, this categorisation reflects beer styles as they used to be to the point that the monikers mean absolutely nothing if they encompass all of the above under the same umbrella. Bitter and golden ale have basically come to mean anything that can’t be lumped under other headings.


Secondly, punters coming to the festival to learn a bit about beer styles might end up leaving more confused than they arrived. A golden ale could’ve been the sweet honeysuckle of Tring Brewery’s Fanny Ebb’s Summer Ale or alternatively it could be Oakham Ale’s aggressive Green Devil – a visceral grapefruit flesh nectar on steroids. Sampling bitters might have thrown up Dark Star’s Green Hop IPA or Windsor & Eton’s Conqueror – their black IPA. These are nothing like the more textbook Boltmaker or Sussex Best.

It’s time to revise the evolving topography in the field of beer categories. The GBBF does list IPA (how can it not?) but this is only one category more than its smaller cousin in South Hertfordshire. In reality, the craft of brewing, the technology used and the wider range of ingredients are shaping beer’s future. The old chalk-scrawled categories on the casks are becoming obsolete.

Oxymoron Smackdown

My first ever black IPA was a pint of Raven by Thornbridge Brewery at the Cask & Kitchen in Pimlico in about 2009 (the beer’s now been renamed Wild Raven). At the time, it seemed so aggressive I wasn’t sure I could handle it. The experience charged out in two conflicting directions: it had the bitter stimulating funk of ground coffee but equally the fluorescent citrusy notes of American hops – an addition that was becoming increasingly popular in Britain. Since then, I’ve had black IPAs across the range from around 3.5% to 10%. The style constitutes a core beer for most breweries now. 
Not everyone likes black IPAs nor the oxymoron in the name (Black India Pale Ale – both black AND pale) but it’s a beer I hunt down and that experience in 2009 wouldn’t be anywhere near as challenging now. That shock to the palate has been subsumed and habitualised. Black IPAs also suit both cask and keg dispense.

Buxton Brewery Imperial Black (bottle conditioned 7.5%)

A high rocky beige froth builds up when you hoy this in the glass. The colour’s darkest brown and opaque fooling you into thinking it’s black at first glance. The aroma is grassy hoppy like a spray of orange zest. On the dive it’s tangy and carbonated but mellifluous. It’s both roasted and sharp – vending machine plastic cup coffee from the malt and hoarse dryness from the hops. It’s actually quite spicy too like there’s a trace of black or red pepper in it (as far as I’m aware there isn’t). The strongest impression I get is of that citrus fruit mist that gushes from under the thumbnail when peeling a naval orange. The body’s not thick or sticky either but quite sloshy.
Bacchus here likes to raise the wrist too although the glass he wields looks like it would spill too easily for any serious downage. What does the look in his eyes reflect? It looks like he’s daring you to comment about what’s on his head. Maybe I discern indifference, or is it emptiness? If it’s the latter, perhaps it’s because there were no black IPAs when he was around at the end of the 16th century. With some gorgeous roasted malt and zesty hops, he might break into more of a smile. I’d take him out for a black IPA if he agreed to stop flaunting his man boob in public. 
The real reason I’m showing you him is because Caravaggio’s most famous is the poster boy for the birrifico (brewery) of our second beer; it’s his image on the bottle crown. The brewery’s website is beautiful too – beer, food and sun porn. This particular beer is listed in its “avanguardia” section.

Microbirrifico Opperbacco Deep Underground (bottle conditioned 7.1%)

I’m already annoyed because when I look at the bottle shape and artwork on the label, it reminds me that we rarely indulge in such aesthetic indulgences here. Why? Italy is new to the beer scene but the Italians immediately associate the craft with pleasure as much as they do their wine and food. The design of the bottle makes you want to nurse its sensuous curves in your hands but maybe that’s just the birra talking. When emptied, the bottle could grace a row of objets d’arts for posterity on a ceiling beam. There’s also a plastic seal under the crown that allows the bottle to be sealed again after opening. That won’t be necessary today. 
The beer decants like black treacle with trills of carbonation streaming up the glass sides. The high khaki head seems like velvet. The aroma is of treacle, molasses and a hint of liquorice. The taste then propels you the other way: though there’s a burnt Demerera sugar bitterness, it’s starchy and dry like an unsweetened water biscuit. I do get a cherry note too like a Ricola sucking sweet. The mouthfeel isn’t as thick as the look and nose would suggest – it sloshes silkily around the tongue. The palate and aroma also conjure a sawdusty edge like a workshop haze. It’s lovely, complex and grown up. The impression I’m left with is of a beer that, despite being 7.1% is actually light and dainty.

Odell Brewing Mountain Standard (bottle 9.5%)

My knowledge of American Geography is limited but when I think of Colorado – Odell’s home state – I think of craft brewing and mountains. This bottle label checks both.
Of all three beers so far it’s the most powerful on the nose. As I placed the glass on the bookshelf for the photo my nostrils were assaulted by an unctuous fog of limes, black Opal fruits and liquorice strings. It’s actually stronger than that, it verges on tar. If I shut my eyes, I can imagine distant roads being resurfaced and just catching it on the wind. However that sounds, the aroma is utterly appealing.

The beer is darkest walnut in colour rather than black. The head is the same light brown as you’d find on a macchiato and it’s thick and elastic. In the hatch, the body is highly carbonated but still viscous. You sip it and it buzzes on the tongue. The taste is of blackest full cocoa chocolate and and it desiccates the palate.
Aroma and dryness are what dominate in this ale. American breweries excel in making beers that are hoppy and heavy but still carbonated. It’s the kind of beer us Brits are trying desperately to emulate.
All three beers show how brewing is turning into an art form across the world including places where beer has never traditionally been the tradition. On that note, I’m declaring Deeper Underground by Opperbacco from Teramo the winner here. It has crafted a heavy beer that simultaneously manages to push new flavours and levity into a black IPA.
Check out some other vertical tastings: