Black has always been fashionable. Now, it’s also true for craft beer.
American black ale, also called American black IPA or Cascadian dark is a beer style that has soared in popularity. Will it be a passing fad or a lasting hallmark of brewing? My bet is the latter.
I have to admit I’ve only recently become aware of these brews, noticing them as they began to appear on the shelves of retailers on Long Island and on tap at area bars. Some commentators suggest they’ve been around as long as 10 years. Among the first to gain popularity was San Diego-based Stone Brewing’s 11th Anniversary Ale, released in 2006-2007. Now it’s called Sublimely Righteous Ale. Want to gauge the style’s popularity? Check out RateBeer.com and you’ll find a mind-boggling 520 entries for American black ales.
Not surprisingly, America black ale began as a West Coast phenomenon, but brewers across the country joined the parade. American black ale, generally, is a tongue-tingling celebration of Pacific Northwest hops, which play a key flavor role alongside a malt character. These brewers are deep-brown-to opaque black, light-to-medium bodied, and more reminiscent of an IPA in body rather than a porter or stout. There typically are piney, citrus and resiny hop aromas and flavors and little to no roasty character or bitterness. I’ve found they finish long and dry, some offering a delicious lip-smacking character.
American black ale is recognized as a style by the Boulder, CO-based Brewers Association, the industry’s trade group. In its revised January 2011 style guidelines, the BA renamed the style that formerly had the oxymoronic moniker of American black India pale ale. Really, can a beer be black and pale simultaneously?
Here’s what the BA’s guidelines state: “American-style black ale is perceived to have medium high to high hop bitterness, flavor and aroma with medium-high alcohol content, balanced with a medium body. Fruity, floral and herbal character from hops of all origins may contribute character. The style is further characterized by a moderate degree of caramel malt character and dark roasted malt flavor and aroma. High astringency and high degree of burnt roast malt character should be absent.”
Recently, I sampled several American black ales. As might be expected, they varied widely.
Widmer Brothers Pitch Black IPA, which weighs in at 6.5 percent alcohol by volume (abv), an original gravity (OG) of 16 and 64 international bitterness units (IBU), was my top pick. Round, smooth and balanced with a resin, fruity nose, notes of toast and caramel, this brew from Portland , OR had a long. dry finish. $2.99 for a 12 oz. bottle.
Stone’s Sublimely Righteous Ale, despite its higher alcohol–8.7 percent ABV–and bitterness — 90 IBUs, was dangerously easy to drink with its piney nose and mouth-coating, lip-smacking palate. $7.99/22 oz.
Back to Black, an entry in the black ale sweeps from San Francisco’s 21st Amendment Brewery (brewed and canned under contract by Cold Spring Brewing Co. in Cold Spring, MN) also is a smooth quaffer with a winey nose, sweet malt in the mouth and a lasting finish. $1.89/12 oz.
Boston’s Harpoon Brewery Black IPA demonstrates this is not just a West Coast phenomenon with its 7 percent ABV brew. From its resiny nose, due to diverse additions of Chinook, Simcoe, Cascade, Citra and Athanum hops, to its bittersweet palate with hints of chocolate and spice, this is a soft, dry brew. $6.49/22 oz.
Another New England entry, Clown Shoes Lubrication American Black, is a contract brew made by Mercury Brewing in Ispwich, MA. This opaque brew, which claims an addition of orange peel, seemed more stout-like than others with its roasty nose and expresso palate, which overpowered any hop character that might have been there. $4.29/12 oz.
The geographic diversity is evident in RJ Rockers Brewing Co.’s Black Perle IPA from Spartanburg, S.C., a boozy opaque monster at 9.5 percent ABV. No Northwest hops here. Instead, German Perle hops were used in the 90-minute boil. A low hop nose, a touch of astringency and some cocoa nib character on the palate made me wonder if this was indeed, a black ale or, perhaps, a mis-named imperial stout. Points, however, for a great package with its midnight blue label and drippy blue wax-coated seal. $12/22 oz.
And there’s also Ithaca Beer Co.’s Excelsior Fourteen, which I sampled on draft at Tap & Barrel in Smithtown, NY. It’s an opaque brew with some ruby tones, some roasty flavor, earthy bitterness and a long dry finish. $7/12 oz.
I’m happy drinking on the dark side. Brew it black.