Black IPAs: Drink ‘Em Up, Call ‘Em What You Want

Black IPAs are hot. IPAs as a whole continue to be a fast growing segment of craft beer sales and these roasted malt versions are popping up all over the place. The most recent local addition is Bitter Root Brewery’s Last Cast Black IPA. On the way to working up a review, I stumbled upon the latest salvo in the Black IPA name “controversy,” an article on by Stone Brewing Co. founder/CEO Greg Koch.*

My introduction to the style was in January, 2010 with Blacksmith Brewing Co.’s Black Iron Black IPA, followed soon there after by Widmer’s W’10 Pitch Black IPA.  Since then, I’ve tried every one I’ve spotted from coast to coast. 

Back then, no one was sure what to call them and that remains true today. The chief candidates are Black IPA and Cascadian Dark Ale.  The Brewers Association adopted the name American Style Black Ale, a name I’ve not seen used even once on a beer label.  Some argue against “black IPA” because the name is contradictory (i.e. a black India pale ale). Stone’s Koch points out the absurd nature of these arguments given that current IPAs have nothing to do with India and don’t bear much resemblance to the 150 year old original. Some aren’t even all that pale.

Many beer lovers decry the overt regionalism of the name used in the northwest, Cascadian Dark Ale, adopted particularly by Deschutes Brewery and many of the Portland area breweries. Stone’s Koch dislikes the term “American Black Ale” because, he says, the word “American” is incorrectly used as a euphemism for “hoppy.”  On this point I disagree.  Where “IPA” has taken on a meaning we all understand – a moderately to highly hopped beer with fruity/citrus hop flavors – so has the phrase “American Style.”  It has long been used to describe what American brewers have done to classic English and European styles: pumped them up, usually with much higher quantities of hops, but also with higher malt levels.  Still, the name “American Black Ale” simply isn’t going to catch on.**  Ask 10 IPA lovers to describe a black ale and you’d be hard pressed to find one who could do it.

For my tastes, Deschutes’ Hop in the Dark is the gold standard of Cascadian Dark Ales/Black IPAs. It’s aroma has elements of coffee, chocolate and a touch of piney hops.  Flavors include roasted malts, coffee, dark chocolate and a little smoke – all over a piney/citrus bitterness that is present throughout the profile.  It has a medium body and an excellent balance between the roasted malts and the IPA elements. Other  excellent ones I’ve tried are Stone’s Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale, Bozeman Brewing Co.’s Black IPA, and Laughing Dog Brewing’s DogZilla Black IPA.

Having already had a number of excellent Black IPAs and a whole host of good ones, I was curious how Bitter Root Brewery’s Last Cast Black IPA would stack up. Could it match the full hop flavor and rich roasted malts of the Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale or Hop in the Dark?  

Bitter Root hoped to debut Last Cast at the Montana Brewers Festival in September, but it wasn’t quite ready.  It was released about a week later at the brewery and in 22 oz bombers.  I’ve seen a few kegs around Missoula as well.  This beer pours a solid black with a light tan head. The aroma is a wonderfully big hit of fruity citrus and just a touch of roasted malt. One sip and you’re immediately met with a lot of flavor. There’s strong hop flavor from both the citrus and pine realm along with pronounced roasted malt flavors such as bitter chocolate or dark roast coffee. Like Hop in the Dark, the hops don’t hide the roasted malt and the roasted malt doesn’t hide the hops.  It’s an excellent balance that lets both flavor profiles shine through. It has a medium/full body and 6.7% abv.  Frankly, it’s on par with the best we’ve had.

We asked Bitter Root’s general manager, Jason Goeltz, what they thought of the naming issue and why they chose to go with “Black IPA.”  Not surprisingly, Bitter Root cares more about the quality of the beer – and it shows – than what it’s called.  Ultimately, they chose to go with Black IPA because the IPA name is already well known and accepted. Adding “Black” to its name is more easily understood than picking a whole new one.  Curious what’s in it?  Here’s the list:  Montana Metcalf 2-row Pale, Munich, Vienna, Honey, Crystal, Brown, Chocolate, Rye, ESB, and Black malts and Magnum and Citra hops.

Last Cast is a seasonal. We’ve stocked up for the long winter, so if you’re not finding it in Western Montana stores, blame us.

* Bend, OR, beer blogger Jon Abernathy, of The Brew Site, adroitly calls such articles “linkbait.”  He’s right. We both linked to it.

** Well, who knows.  Beer Advocate has adopted the name to use as the category for this style. Still . . .