Monday, August 13, 2012

The Definition of Black

On Saturday I was a judge at the Dominion Cup, Virginia's largest, I believe, homebrew competition. In the morning I got to judge a combination of Scottish, Irish and Brown Ales, which was won by a 70/- ale which I later discovered was an entry from fellow CAMRAite and blogger, Jamey Barlow. The afternoon session was rather more taxing, as I had been handled Category 23, Specialty Beer, or as it should be accurately be known "random stuff that doesn't belong anywhere else".

Some of the beers in the category included an American IPA fermented with Brettanomyces and an Imperial Stout that had raspeberry puree in the secondary fermentation and then aged on cacao nibs, the most dominant beer type though was "Black IPA" in various guises. Now, if you have been reading Fuggled for a reasonable length of time you will know that I am not a fan of Black IPA, Cascadian Dark Ale, call it what you will, but the task of the judge is to be as objective as possible, and thus I tried to be.

Our task though was made all the more difficult because of different interpretations of exactly what the "black" in Black IPA really means - should the black be purely colour or should there be a distinct roasty element? Unlike the Great American Beer Festival, the BJCP style guidelines have yet to take into account the phenomena which is Black IPA. I have read plenty of bits and bobs on the old interwebs to the tune that if you drink a Black IPA with your eyes closed you shouldn't be able to tell the difference between it and a normal IPA, so my interpretation would be that roastiness from roasted barley, Black Malt or Carafa shouldn't be noticeable to any great degree. My fellow judges felt that the addition of dark malts should be obvious to distinguish the Black IPA from the usual kind, to which I wonder how it not then just an overhopped Porter or Stout?

It is clear to me that the BJCP needs to address this hole in the style guidelines, perhaps creating a new sub category within category 10, it would be 10D - American Black Ale. As for the guidelines themselves, using the GABF guideline would be a good start, which reads:

"American-style Black Ales are very dark to black and 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 many contributre character. The style is further characterized by a balanced and moderate degree of caramel malt and dark roasted malt flavor and aroma. High astringency and high degree of burnt roast malt character should be absent
  • OG - 1.056-1.075
  • FG - 1.012-1.018
  • ABV - 6-7.5%
  • SRM - 35+"
Clearly then, while roast is an element in the beer it shouldn't be the dominant flavour or aroma, and in opinion that has been the problem with pretty much every Black IPA I have tried, whether professional or homebrew, it is simply so roasty that it may as well be an "American Porter".

Clarification is most definitely in order.


  1. Steve was just saying the same thing The Windsor and Eton one is lovely, especially on cask and has pretty much no roast coffee at all.

    Summerwine (I think) also does a great one.

  2. A lot of BIPAs in the UK are proper unroasted ones, buxton imperial black rocks for one (one of my current favourites)

  3. I really like the roasty Black Ales with Stones 15th Anniversary Escondidian Black Ale from last year a great example. Another good example is the local Great Dismal from O'Connor (Norfolk, VA): it has just a very slight roast.

    While roasty, they are not all that stoutish when compared to very hoppy stouts out there like Stone IRS or Victory Storm King. Non roasty Black Ales can often just seem like IPAs with food coloring; what's the point?
    Maybe it's just an American thing.

    That said, there should be clearer guidelines.

    Good to meet you, albeit briefly, over by the cornhole boards on saturday.


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