Liquid Diet: Black IPA, the Latest Craft Brewer Darling

Exploring the local history behind every craft brewer’s favorite new style, the Black IPA—and where to find it in Boston.

New England Black IPAs

Photo by Jeff Soyk for Boston magazine.

Last month, The New York Times reported that craft breweries now account for 6.5-percent of all domestic beer sales. That number might seem negligible until you start talking actual dollars, and realize that equates to over $200 billion annually. In terms of today’s craft beer scene, that’s a lot of experimental hops, brettanomyces (a type of yeast), bourbon barrel aging, and organic vanilla bean pods. But what’s often overlooked in this new reality is that our most ambitious breweries are still experimenting within the confines of European beer styles, some of which date back to the 17th century.

But there is an American original, the Black IPA, which has been showing up on beer lists much more frequently. East Coast and West Coast brew houses are even quarreling over the style’s birthplace and the inevitable bragging rights over its provenance. I recently spoke with John Thompson, Minister of Propaganda at Smuttynose Brewing in New Hampshire, who told me, “I know that people from the West Coast want to lay claim to the beer style, but at the logs at the Vermont Pub and Brewery they’ve got a recipe that dates back to 1994. So, we have documentary evidence that it is a New England original.”

Often called a Cascadian Dark Ale on the West Coast—in reference to the Cascade Range famous for its concentration of hop farmers—it actually represents a fairly recent manifestation in that region of the country. Mitch Steele, from San Diego’s Stone Brewing, was the first to release a Cascadian Dark with their Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale. But Steele admits that his inspiration came from sampling and falling in love with Shaun Hill’s first Black IPA, presented in 2006 at Boston’s Extreme Beer Fest. Hill, now celebrated for his cult brewery Hill Farmstead, was then an unseasoned newcomer working at The Shed Restaurant and Brewery in Stowe, Vermont. Hill Farmstead has since become synonymous with Black IPAs, with examples like James and Jim that have near-perfect scores on Ratebeer.com. But at the time, Hill was merely paying homage to a local favorite named Black Watch IPA, brewed by Greg Noonan.

Noonan is a pioneer in the New England craft beer scene whose long battle with the Vermont government helped overturned the Prohibition-era legislation banning brewpubs. That victory created a windfall in the community and allowed him to open the Vermont Pub and Brewery in Burlington in 1988, an influential landmark, which became notorious for its quality and ingenious brewing methods. Greg Noonan passed away from lung cancer in 2009, but he left behind some of brewing’s most groundbreaking literature and a mob of acolytes.

“Greg was an individual who was extremely well regarded by the entire Vermont craft brewing community, and really helped start the movement here,” says Jed Nelson, Marketing Director at Otter Creek Brewing.  “Vermont now has the highest amount of breweries in the country (per capita). It really can’t be understated how influential the craft of brewing has had on the culture of our state and what an influential person Greg was in brewing circles. “

The profile of a Black IPA combines the color and roasted malt characteristics of a porter or stout, the drinkability of a pale ale, the smokiness of a German Black Lager, and the intense hop aroma of an American IPA. But it’s a beer that should be more than just the sum of its influences. “It’s a bit disingenuous just to take your dry stout recipe and hop the bejesus out of it,” says Johnson.

“I love IPAs and stouts, so what better way to combine the two?” says Harpoon’s Matt DeLuca, whose Black IPA recipe will soon graduate from their small-batch 100 Barrel Series to a year-round offering, later this year. “It’s become a fun, aggressive style for brewers to create and hop heads around the country have started to seek them out since it’s still somewhat of a niche style.”

Black IPAs are a fickle undertaking though, as the smoky quality of the dehusked black malt—the same malt found in German Schwarzbiers—tends to overwhelm the hop characteristics after only a short amount of time on the shelf. Jon Cadoux, co-founder at Peak Organic Brewing Company in Portland, Maine, even suggests calling a brewery to inquire into which bars and retailers carry their most recent batch. “If there’s one style you should be militant about it’s the Black IPA. The problem with IPAs and especially Black IPAs is that even if that beer is just a couple of months old, you lose a lot of the hop aroma, a lot of the hop flavor, and all that’s going to be left over is the residual hop bitterness that can be found in some high alpha stouts and porters. The beers change a lot over time.”

I sampled every available example I could find locally, and I as I began tasting them (spaced over the course of a week, due to the palate-wrecking nature of the style) Cadoux’s words rang more and more true. With several of the beers, I was forced to find fresher product because the hops had simply disappeared and the overall profile had become fairly one-dimensional. Remember, it’s not supposed to be a porter, but as Matt DeLuca describes, “a balanced beer where the hops and roasted malts battle and compliment each other all at the same time.”

Slumbrew Naked Hopularity (Somerville, MA)

This beer is a must for Islay Scotch fans. Beneath the rich mocha character is a prevalent smoky, peaty quality. As the beer warms up, the citrus notes from the Centennial hops really come through, but the dosage of Simcoe hops prevails in this woodsy example that’s as inky as a forest floor. Streetcar Wine & Beer $9.50 

Smuttynose Noonan Black IPA (Portsmouth, NH)

The most balanced Black IPA of the bunch with a creamy head and a smooth, Guinness-like consistency. There are enticing aromas of sweet malt and dark currant and cherry. The addition of Nugget and Bravo hops lends a nice spicy, herbaceousness. This is the perfect tribute to the pioneer who started it all. Liquor World in Porter Square $9.45 6-pack

Otter Creek Alpine Black IPA (Middlebury, VT)

Created in 2010 to honor Greg Noonan at the Vermont Beer Fest, it proved so popular, despite the 90-degree weather, that they knew that they had a beer suited for all seasons and they quickly added it to their year-round offerings. The dark mahogany color is deceptive, as it has a quenching, sessionable smoothness. This beer has plenty of grip from the resiny Apollo and Simcoe hops and a lingering finish from the bitter dark chocolate notes. Downtown Wine & Spirits $8.99 6-pack

Harpoon Black IPA (Boston, MA)

This was recently re-released to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Harpoon’s bestselling IPA. Like Rich & Dan’s Rye IPA, which also came from the 100 Barrel Series, it’s a much welcome addition to their everyday lineup. Matt DeLuca uses a base of specialty malt from Breiss called Midnight Wheat, which adds a pronounced toasted wheat quality. Five different hops lend beautiful orange and citrus rind notes. The body has plenty of medium-dark chocolate and the same kind of bitterness found in cold brew coffee. Downtown Wine & Spirits $15.90 IPA Adventure Mix 12-pack

Hill Farmstead James (Greensboro, VT)

This onyx colored brew is loaded with grapefruit, char, graham cracker aroma, and a satisfying hint of campfire smoke near the end. It’s easy to see why beer fans from across the globe travel to rural Greensboro for a taste of this chewy, viscous offering. Limited distribution. Check out Prohibition Pig in Waterbury, VT or visit Hill Farmstead for a growler fill.

Peak Organic Hop Noir (Portland, ME)

At 8.2% ABV, this really packs a punch. Tropical hop notes lean toward pineapple to go with the aromas of spruce, cocoa mix, and toasted marshmallow. It’s even better on draft, if you can find it.  Ball Square Fine Wines $11.99 6-pack

Wormtown Dark Day IPA (Worcester, MA)

Brewed in collaboration with Dave Richardson from Gardner Ale House, this is only its second release in bottle. The nose has plenty of pine needle and earth, but subtle layers of peach and other stone fruits also emerge. This is another sessionable example that has a pleasant finish of chicory and spice notes. Dave’s Fresh Pasta $8.95 

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  • http://twitter.com/beerbabe The Beer Babe

    Nice article. One correction:

    “…recently spoke with John Thompson, Minister of Propaganda at Smuttynose Brewing in Vermont…”

    Smuttynose Brewing is located in Portsmouth, NH.

  • http://twitter.com/MistySutton Misty Sutton

    Great article! While I’m a huge right-coast beer fan, a few favorite black IPA’s come from the left.. Green Flash, and Deschutes Hop in the Dark (which is my favorite beer in the entire world).