Monday, January 09, 2012

Black IPA - Why ?

With apologies to Buxton
A trip yesterday to one of our local hostelries, which had 4 'Black IPA's on the bar, started me thinking. What is a black IPA ? And what is the point ? Before I start, let me say that I have no problem with the beers themselves, even though they vary between the excellent and the average, its just the term 'Black IPA' that I take exception to.

I have always thought an IPA, by its very definition, should be light. Why else should it be called an India Pale Ale ? A black beer is not pale, and never can be. I have explored the provenance of India Pale Ale in a previous post, and will not bore you with it again, except to reiterate that I expect IPA to be what it says on the pump clip, i.e a pale ale. However in recent times, there has been an outbreak, mostly from brewers who consider themselves part of the English 'craft brewing' fraternity, of these black IPA's. 

I assume the term has come from across the water in America which is well known for butchering the English language, and  our brewers have latched onto it for some reason. As far as I understand, beer styles, are named after two things, that being tradition or ingredients used. I have touched on the tradition question earlier, an IPA should be light, or pale, in my opinion. A black IPA is an oxymoron that bucks two centuries of brewing tradition for no apparent reason. Many have other names. Surely calling a beer 'Imperial Black ',or 'West Highland Black' gives the drinker enough information to know he is drinking a black beer, why add the additional rider 'IPA' to the name ? Are they just jumping on a bandwagon ? Does it give the drinker any more information? I personally think not after drinking several of them. 

The other side of the coin relates to ingredients used. I accept that to use the hop character of an IPA and adding darker malts creates some sort of hybrid , but is that enough to justify a new genre of beer ? It could just as easily be a bitter stout, or hoppy porter. I am of the opinion that it doesn't. I am not even sure that the balance of hops and malt in this hybrid are often right, and it seems that often one or the other dominates the taste, dark malts and resinous hops do not seem to blend well to my taste, and I have yet to find one that I am totally happy with.

Maybe I am being pedantic, (who,me !), but for me, an IPA will be forever Pale, and the 'Black IPA' maybe  just a passing phase, the sooner the phase passes the better as far as I am concerned. Or may be in years to come I will be proved wrong and the 'Black IPA' will be a recognised name in English brewing. Only time will tell.  

The picture is no reflection of Buxton brewery, and its beer, it merely illustrates a point.  


Anonymous said...

"I accept that to use the hop character of an IPA and adding darker malts creates some sort of hybrid , but is that enough to justify a new genre of beer?"
Clearly yes and one that adds a bit of interest, and if not interest then a talking point, if not a talking point then a bit of fun in an industry where people forget to laugh once in a while. I get where you are coming from, but I don't understand why people get so worked up about it? It's a beer. Might I add that the Black IPA's you have tried are not easy to brew, and as you point out, achieving the desired balance of dark malts and IPA hop character is a challenge. So maybe this is about brewing innovation? granted that the name is an oxymoron, but that really doesn't matter, does it? Cascadian Dark Ale, or an India Pitch Black Ale as I named my homebrew effort, it's just a name.

Steve Lamond said...

Eevryone knows what an IPA tastes like, adding the descriptor "black" prevents shock at point of purchase. IPA long ago stopped meaning "India Pale Ale" in the true sense. Beer styles evolve, yes it could be a hoppy porter, and some do taste like that, whereas others could be pale if you closed your eyes. There's no problem as I see it and Black IPa is certainly preferable to "imperial" black ale...which imperial court is it aimed at eh?

Lois said...

I'm with you on this one Tim. It winds me up no end. It would be far more innovative to come up with a sensible, more descriptive name for these beers rather than jumping on a hopefully evaporating into the sunset, wagon!

The Ale Louse said...

..."not easy to brew"... - Not easy to drink either! Yeuch!

Anonymous said...

No, no and thrice no!

If I saw a new beer called West Highland Black I would expect it to be a traditional stout. The addition of 'IPA' lets me know that we are dealing with a very different beast.

And it is indeed diferent. These are not hoppy stouts or porters because they include little or none of the richly roasted malt that characterises those beers. The best black IPAs use a de-husked Bavarian malt that gives a much gentler roast taste. Add plenty of aromatic new world hops and you have a distinctive, and in my opinion delicious, style of beer.

As I enjoy black IPAs I naturally want to know when one appears on the bar: ie I want the description with which I am familiar to appear on the pump clip. Yes, it would probably have been better if an alternative name had been adopted in the first place, one that didn't have pedants across the land frothing at the mouth: but that horse is long gone. This is a great style of beer: who cares if the name is not ideal?

Thanks to the Grove for giving lovers of the dark hoppy stuff a late Christmas present this weekend. Buxton's Imperial Black is as splendid as Black Rocks, but with a little bit more of everything; and West Highland Black IPA is one of the best beers on the planet.

Tim the younger.

Anonymous said...

The first posters India Pitch Black Ale is fair enough, that oi likes yeps i does. Gud usings a English word is well impotant!! But how many 'Indian Pale Ales' have any connection with India in anything other than historical context? I don't like the term black I.P.A but some of the beers are very enjoyable indeed, even if for my personal taste i have had more 'misses' than 'hits'.

Matt Curtis said...

I think it's a combination of the brewers having a little oxymoronic fun and using the IPA label so punters can identify them as beers they may potentially enjoy... I love them, especially Thornbridge Raven, what a drop!

dave said...

the term 'black IPA' is perhaps unfortunate, but IMO is the most accurate description of (most of!) these beers: IPA body, IPA bitterness, IPA hops, but, er, black. as mentioned above the best use Carafa Spezial to add colour but not flavour - so in no way can they be considered hoppy porter/stout as they are bereft of roast barley, chocolate malt, burnt malt, etc, and generally don't have the body associated with stouts & porters.

maybe 'IDA' or 'IBA' would have been a better name, but for whatever reason that's not what stuck.

and lets be honest, it's not the first brewing oxymoron.. after all, we've all had dunkel weißbier...

Anonymous said...

As far as my knowledge stretches, the term 'Black IPA' is a British invention. The Americans were the first to brew beers of this type, and they were, for once, sensible with naming their new style of beer.
As mentioned in an earlier comment they came up with the idea of 'Imperial Black Ale', and I agree with the comments made about the name, as a lot of Black IPAs are not up to a percentage to be classed as 'Imperial'. But names such as India Black Ale, India Brown Ale and Cascadian Dark Ale seem to fit the beers better, and would also prevent confusion upon ordering.
Why these names were never accepted on this side of the pond is beyond me.