Thursday, 18 April 2013

Black IPA: Some info and brewing tips

In anticipation of my upcoming brew day where I'll be tackling a clone of Hill Farmstead James, a Black IPA, I thought I'd write a short post on brewing this style. I've done some reading on the subject, and I've had quite a few different commercial Black IPAs, but I've never actually BREWED one myself. So, I'm certainly not an expert or anything close to it on the subject; I more wanted to jot down some important notes on what one should consider when brewing a Black IPA, mostly for my own good. If anyone has anything to add, from personal experience, their own readings, etc., by all means let me know!

This style has to be one of the most oxymoronic (a black pale ale?), most-argued-about, fastest-growing beer styles out there right now. Aside from the fact that it can be referred to by at least four different names (usually Black IPA or Cascadian Dark Ale, but sometimes also as India Black Ale or American Strong Black Ale), throw in that the REGION of the United States that it is brewed in will often dictate what it is called: Black IPA in the east, and Cascadian Dark Ale in the Pacific Northwest. It's certainly not as simplified as that, but basically there are arguments over who started the style (generally agreed to be the late Greg Noonan, of the Vermont Pub and Brewery), how it should look, taste, and smell, and the best way to brew it.

Mitch Steele of Stone Brewing Co. addresses these issues quite well in his book, IPA: Brewing Techniques, Recipes and the Evolution of India Pale Ale. He writes that he can see Black IPA and Cascadian Dark Ale (CDA) eventually evolving into two different styles. In the book, Jeff Bagby of Pizza Port in California makes some helpful distinctions between the two:

Cascadian Dark Ale - more dark brown than black, possessing some dark malt flavors; while a hoppy character is certainly present, it lacks the huge hop aroma and high bitterness seen in Double IPAs, and the alcohol strength is usually limited to 5.5-7% ABV.

Black IPA - often stronger, more bitter, and with very high hop aromas and flavors; while very dark in color, the dark malt character is virtually absent; basically, it lives up to its name - an American IPA that is black.

Keep in mind these comparisons are by no means "official"; at least, not yet. In fact, Black IPA/CDA still isn't officially a beer style category in the BJCP. It IS listed in the Great American Beer Festival guidelines, however, under the name American-Style Black Ale (yep, another name).

So, what characteristics do you aim for when brewing this style of beer? Despite the various arguments, you'd be pretty safe going for the following:

- Dark-brown to black in color.
- Moderate to very strong hop aroma.
- Minimal roast flavors and aromas... you're not trying to make a hoppy porter or stout, here. No burnt flavors or high astringency.
- Strong hop flavors (similar to those in the aroma) and high to very-high hop bitterness.
- A fairly dry finish; not quite as dry as the best American IPAs and DIPAs, but well-attenuated enough that the beer isn't syrupy or overly-sweet.
- Medium to medium-high alcohol level, ~6-8% ABV.

I think one of the most important points to hit is the minimal roast flavors/aromas... you really have to limit the amount of chocolate malt, roasted barley, etc. that you put in this beer (if you add any at all). I've had some commercial and homebrewed Black IPAs that really just tasted like a very hoppy stout. The best Black IPAs have a bit of roasted character to them, but it's nothing too strong; similar to a Schwarzbier, for example. Many sources also claim that a lot of roast character simply clashes with the hop flavors from American varieties.

If you're looking to brew a Black IPA, here are some brewing tips that I've accumulated from a few sources:

- Target an OG in the American IPA range, ~1.056-1.075.
- Limit your use of Crystal malts to <10%, and darker malts even less than that (~<5%).
- Substitute all or the majority of dark malts with a dehusked variety, such as Carafa Special or Midnight Wheat, or a black malt extract (e.g. Sinamar). These will give you the dark color you need, without the accompanying burnt flavors and astringency. Cold-steeping your dark grains is also an option to cut down on those characteristics.
- Aim for a fairly low FG, ranging from 1.010-1.016. Use a lower mash temp to get there (148-152 F), and use a small amount of adjuncts if you need to get a bit lower.
- Hop aggressively. Steele recommends hopping the beer like you would a DIPA, regardless of the alcohol strength and OG.
- Use American-variety hops that showcase citrusy, piney, and dank flavors/aromas, such as Columbus, Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, Amarillo, Simcoe, and Citra.
- For dry-hopping, Steele lists a range of 2.5-5 oz per 5 gallon batch... pretty high, and definitely within DIPA territory.

While a lot of what I've summarized above is still confusing since many brewers have their own take on this "style", it's interesting to see where everyone is taking it in its still-early stages. Maybe someday soon Black IPA/CDA will settle down into real, defined BJCP guidelines, but for now it's definitely still open to interpretation! I've already read of a few people brewing a "Belgian Black IPA"; I have no doubt "English Black IPA" has already been attempted by others (if not, I just claimed the name!).

Over the next couple of days, I'll be brewing the Hill Farmstead James recipe (more or less) from Steele's book. Shaun Hill was definitely one of the brewers who helped make the style popular early on, if not on quite as grand a scale as Stone's Sublimely Self-Righteous. I'll be posting the brewing notes for this recipe very soon.


  1. very well thought out, I firmly agree this style is full of bad names and beers constructed all over the place. I also find Mitch's statement so true. West Coast Black IPA's are just colored back and Pacific Northwests are malty, hop driven beers. Almost in the Janets Brown range but black.

    1. Yeah, it's definitely a style that hasn't been nailed down yet. I think it's the really roasty "Black IPAs" that don't even have much of a hop character that irritate me the most... and there seems to be quite a few of those around.