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.

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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.

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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.

4 Comments

  1. Very well put, Alec. The only thing I’d add is IPA was never really pale anyway – or never consistently so. 19th century images of pale beer often have a decided amber cast. Ballantine India Pale Ale in the U.S., which inspired some of the new-generation IPA, was a medium copper. Bitter, descendant of IPA, often is quite dark…

    So there is no reason doggedly to insist on the oxymoron, even visually. It’s pedantry.

    India Black Ale has a kind of pleasant ring though, it is okay as an alternate term.

    What do these English ones taste like? I find the North American ones often have too much hop. You want that new world smack, but they often hit you over the head with it. I like it better when the hop taste is manifest but not obtrusive.

    Gary

    • Well to be honest I think the English ones try to emulate the American ones. The hops are overwhelmingly the citrussy punchy hops rather than the earthier English ones. On cask, the full roast aroma and the hoppy nose can get quite rounded out – often in a pleasant way (and these ones are likely to be in the sub 5% bracket as cask beers generally are).

      Speaking to a local brewer who brewed under Tring Brewery, the real difference might actually be the yeast. He hates using Tring yeast and enthuses about the clarity of American yeast like it puts tastes in high-definition. On that particular occasion it was a pale ale (Tring Brewery Pale Four) which had to go back to the Tring yeast because of cost.

      I also think there’s a higher disregard for it here. It divides drinkers more. But then there are stalwarts who won’t let anything that isn’t a bitter pass their lips.

      So in short, generally lower ABV when it’s consumed in pubs and the aroma and happiness will probably be down a notch from a US counterpart.

      • Okay thanks. I do like the citrus/New World taste but often I think I’d ratchet it down 20%, so the pub and cask way in England sounds like it might hit the right intensity for me.

        I’ve never actually thought what Black IPA would be like with English hops though. Maybe that’s the next trend!

        Gary

        • Hops like Fuggles and Bramling Cross would probably be overwhelmed. The new Jester hop might put up a fight though. Thanks for posting 😉

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