Beer StylesBlack IPABrewers AssociationGreg NoonanPacific Northwest

The Black IPA Problem…

I’ve been loathe to get involved in the growing dispute over what to call dark beers that display bountiful hop characters without the bite and flavor of roasted malts. Their recent appearances have generated monikers such as Black IPA, India Black Ale, and Cascadian Dark Ale. The history and genesis of this style, whatever you choose to call it, has bounced between New Englander’s proclaiming that the Vermont Pub & Brewery, founded by the late Greg Noonan, and its then brewer Glenn Walter, created the first version called the Blackwatch IPA, to Pacific Northwesterners noting that it is their hops that give the style its signature character, to beer historians who point to old recipes from Britain from more than a hundred years ago to shut up the Johnny-come-lately Americans.

Without going into great detail about the sordid history of this interesting and developing style area (I do, however, tend to side with the Greg Noonan/Glenn Walter/Vermont Pub and Brewery as pioneers side), I hope we can all agree that the names to date have been off-the-mark. For its part, the Brewers Association has classified the ‘American-style India Black Ale style this way:

American-style India black ale has medium high to high hop bitterness, flavor and aroma with medium-high alcohol content, balanced with a medium body. The style is further characterized by a moderate degree of caramel malt character and medium to strong dark roasted malt flavor and aroma. High astringency and high degree of burnt roast malt character should be absent. Fruity, floral and herbal character from hops of all origins may contribute to aroma and flavor.

The first beer I can recall having that tasted like this would either be the New World Porter (first released in 1997) from Avery Brewing or the Alpha Klaus Christmas Porter from 3 Floyds, both of which I think fit the emerging style quite well. I’m not entirely convinced that the simple inclusion of American hops suddenly leads to the creation of an entirely new style of beer or one that should not be properly housed under the Porter banner, as Avery and 3 Floyds have done. That perspective, I acknowledge, is not likely to carry the day in the present climate.

But in looking at the present names for the style, the deficiencies are as obvious as they are myriad. The style, as far as I can tell (in this day and age, you almost always have to qualify historic approximations), has no connection to India. It is also in no way pale. So a Black India Pale Ale or Black Pale Ale makes no conceivable sense except for the connections to the hops. But we use American hops in a substantial number of other styles without the need of bringing the South Asian sub-continent into the nomenclature debate, so why apply it here? Moreover, as hard as they try, the Cascadian Dark Ale moniker also suffers. Despite weak protestations to the contrary, you guys pretty clearly didn’t invent the style. If you guys want to try and lay claim to the American-style India Pale Ale name, have at it. You’re on slightly surer ground there at least.

So what are we left with, except three or four different and confusing ways of saying the same thing?

Well, I believe that styles are important, if for no other reason than consumers can have some reasonable understanding of what they might be getting when they select a certain beer. It is in the hopes of creating some logical détente that I humbly offer the following suggestions for resolving this seemingly intractable debate.

-Dark Bitter Ale (DBA)
-Black Bitter Ale (BBA)
-Black Hoppy Ale (BHA)

or perhaps my favorite, the NBA: Noonan Black Ale. Feel free to vote and let me know your thoughts.

Be Social:

18 thoughts on “The Black IPA Problem…

  1. Wow, I thought that I had come up with a great name for the style, but was going to wait till I brewed one to enter the fray. Well, Noonanian dark Ale came to me a few weeks ago. So, I guess we have some convergent evolution on the best name and I think that it is the best direction for the name.

  2. I voted Black Hoppy Ale, but I think it would roll off the tongue better as Hoppy Black. I have a slight problem with using the word Bitter in the name, because there is already a Bitter style that isn’t really that bitter. I feel this might lead to some confusion.

    “I’ll have a Hoppy Black Ale, please.”

  3. Good post.

    I think the problem lies more in the crazy growth of faux ‘style’ creation. Hoppy Ale, Hoppier Ale, Very Hoppy Ale (and thus Dark Hoppy Ale, which I voted for) etc. are much more descriptive (and accurate) than all those IPAs DIPAs, Imperial tags, etc.

    By the way, the CAPTCHA required to post was ‘schwarzbier’. Intentional, or a wonderful coincidence?

  4. How about we find a good one and then name the style?

    But in all seriousness, I find most of these beers to be proving a strange and unpalatable point. Yes, you can hop the hell out of a dark, roasty beer. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should. I’m all for innovation, but with respect for flavor. Granted, that’s a fluid and subjective concept, but it’s a place I draw the line until proven wrong. That’s something that none of the beers in this “style” that I’ve tried have done yet.

    Now we’re wrapped up in naming a beer style that seems a lot like an ill-conceived experiment to be extreme or unique, and less like something I’d want to drink. Not to mention the issue of establishing criteria for creating beer styles in general, but I digress…

  5. “IPA” is more about a flavor profile than the individual components of the nomenclature.

    Until people have a problem with medium-amber hoppy beers being called IPAs on the grounds of “medium-amber does not equal pale”, they shouldn’t have a problem with black or brown not being pale and thereby disqualifying it from the IPA catagory.

    “14 isn’t 6. That’s ok, though. The fact that 20 isn’t 6 is what really bothers me.”

  6. Well the old-standbys seem to be doing pretty well in the poll, with more than 100 votes at this point. But the results remain split, another sign of the divide on this topic.

    @E.S. I was a bit skeptical of the style until I recently had the Alchemist’s El Jefe and I am now a believer. I think Victory’s Yakima Twilight is another interesting offering.

    @Tyler I appreciate your idea but I think it’s off base. To the extent that we can objectively define color and what constitutes pale, amber is a lot closer to the mark than the black and brown beers we’re discussing here.

    1. Andy, Yakima Twilight is one that I tried and found to be difficult to get into; seemed too divergent in its malt and hop profiles. However, I haven’t had Alchemist’s and I’m still trying to keep an open mind. If you know of any others exemplifying the style that you’d recommend (and that would be available on the East Coast), shoot me an email with some suggestions. Who knows, I may be a convert yet!

  7. Assigning it nomenclature that wrongly attributes the origin of the style to the Northwest is misleading and does a diservice to those that did orginate the style. Similarly calling it IPA denoting historical antecedents and color attributes that are totally off the mark is also off base and something the BA should have looked at long ago. Calling it a “bitter” also aludes to a class of beers within which these do not fit. If we can cast wide nets for Belgian catagories then why can’t we do the same with American Dark Ales (if a higher gravity group appears in significant numbers then add a Strong American Dark Ale category)?

  8. I think Dark Bitter Ale makes the most sense but I have yet to try this style and I am excited about it but I can’t find it anywhere and I am concerned that when I go searching for it, calling it Dark Bitter Ale will impede my progress in finding it and I should probably just call it Black IPA.

  9. The name Dark IPA is oxymoronic. Alas, this is true if we can agree that the P in IPA stands for PALE.
    My vote: Cascadian Dark Ale. Nothing Oxymoronic here.
    Go ahead, take the cheap shot, I left the door wide open.

  10. I voted India Black Ale, let’s face it. The ale is not pale so why call it that. The hops are present so keeping hop character to make the journey across the seas would be accomplished. It’s made with dark malts, that does not mean we can’t get back across the seas with something called IBA. Coming from Europe, India or America, getting across the seas and perserving hop character will be accomplished.

  11. Black IPA.
    Because that’s what it’s called.
    If you want to get historically nitpicky, don’t forget that when somebody says “black IPA” you automatically know what they’re talking about. It doesn’t taste like a porter, it doesn’t taste like a strong ale, it tastes like an IPA and it’s black. Makes sense to me.

    1. I completely agree! The name is describing the experience. I have far more important things to ponder in life than what is the most accurate name based on pedigree and method.

  12. How about getting a life???

    Why do we need a name for a style? A style is just a vaguely definable section of the beer continuum. There are for example may beers commonly referred to as bitters that may equally be referred to as pale ales.

    To be use-able having too many style names makes no sense, however only having a few means those that exist will only fit a few of the beers in their style well.

    It’s my belief that the development of more ‘modern’ style names will restrict innovation. How about just describing a beers colour, aroma and flavour instead of pidgeon holing it in a non-descriptive style?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *