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No Rests for the Wicked: American Black Ale, Extracted

Maybe that P in IPA can stand for “pitch-black.” Once again helping us to extract the most characterful beer from extract brewing, Annie Johnson has the details on Cascadian dark ale, aka American black ale or black IPA.

Annie Johnson Nov 24, 2021 - 6 min read

 No Rests for the Wicked: American Black Ale, Extracted Primary Image

Photo: Matt Graves

Beer-drinking America loves its IPAs, and that’s a fact. It makes little difference whether they’re juicy-hazy or West Coast crisp and clear, we love them for their hoppy goodness. Whether it’s full of dank, pungent aromas or tropical hits of citrus zest—doesn’t matter, just give us our IPA.

But the IPA spectra, as we know, stretch far beyond the pale—far past hazy or West Coast. Pick your color: We’ve got white, red, brown, black, plus Belgian and rye (hmm, maybe that whole brut phase is best forgotten), not to mention every level of strength from session to imperial, double, triple … hopwine, anyone? No doubt more varieties are on the way, too. Cold IPA is apparently a thing now—and we’ve even got Josh Weikert musing on the potential for German-style IPA.

Confused? Wondering whether “IPA” really means anything if it means everything? Hey, welcome to craft beer in the 2020s. Also, fear not: For now, we’re focusing on one of the most underappreciated, loved-but-then-forgotten sub-styles—the Cascadian dark ale. (The what?) We’re talking black IPA, or what the Great American Beer Festival guidelines call American black ale.

CDA and Other Acronyms

Black IPA—or what we in the great Pacific Northwest (PNW) call Cascadian dark ale (CDA)—is really a variation of a standard American IPA. The earliest known example was brewed in 1994 by Glenn Walters and legendary brewer and author Greg Noonan at The Vermont Pub & Brewery. As the story goes, Noonan’s black IPAs later inspired Shaun Hill of Hill Farmstead, whose beers inspired Mitch Steele at Stone Brewing … and by 2013, it was the trendy style that every craft brewer had to make. Then it just kind of disappeared—too soon, we’d argue. There are still a few around, but not many.

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The style was popular out West, too, morphing into CDA. Partly that was a pedantic response to the contradiction in terms—how can an India pale ale be black? But it was also a reference to its popularity in the region and to the generous portions of PNW hops that make the beer different from porter, stout, or other dark ales. Cascadia encompasses the panhandle of Alaska, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, British Columbia, northern California and western Montana—also known as Sasquatch country (yes, Bigfoot is real; just ask the folks at Sierra Nevada).

You can call it whatever you want, as long as you brew some for us.

The DNA of the CDA

Let’s break it down. We’re talking about a standard-strength (6–7.5 percent ABV), hop-forward ale that features expressive hop flavors and aromas—often with pine, citrus, stone-fruit, and resinous-dank notes. Could you use something more tropical? Sure, but for Cascadian authenticity, you should stick with the classics—Cascade, Centennial, Citra, and so on. My personal favorite is Chinook, which can deliver a potent yet smooth bitterness. Chinook’s aroma tends toward pine, with some milder spiciness and fruitiness. This is a hop that shines in a CDA. (Fun fact: Besides being the name of an indigenous people there, Chinook also is the name for a trade jargon that was the former lingua franca of Cascadia.)

Colorwise, it’s all in the name—black. People often compare this style to American stout. What sets black IPA apart is the use of debittered roast malts such a Weyermann Carafa, Briess Blackprinz, or Briess Midnight Wheat to get that color (and some flavor) without any harsh or burnt qualities. For an American stout, we would want some of those roast coffee or dark chocolate flavors, but we ease up on those here. But we want that color—deep, dark brown to almost jet black.

Otherwise, there should be enough malty middle to balance out that hop bitterness—but it should also be well attenuated, for a dry finish. The mouthfeel shouldn’t be heavy, either—closer to medium or even medium-light.

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And guess what? This is a beer wonderfully suited for extract or partial-mash brewing. A base of pale dry or liquid malt extract plus a few dark malts and some expressive, pine-forward hops will make your inner Sasquatch happy.

Pay attention to your water. If your brewing water is on the softer side, add a teaspoon of gypsum with the steeping grains. Gypsum helps to improve malt-extraction efficiency, balance hop flavor, and improve wort clarity.

A clean-fermenting American ale yeast works well here, allowing the malt and hops to shine. Fermentation should be in the mid-60s°F (18–19°C)—on the cooler side for ales, to keep those esters in check.

Remember, this a dark IPA—it might exhibit some slight toffee or roasted malt flavors, but it should never taste ashy or burnt or anything remotely like a dry stout. It’s a harmonious balance, where the flavor of darker malts is subdued and supportive of the hops, not the dominant flavor of the beer.

Still not convinced this is an IPA? To paraphrase the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who was concerned with a different sort of blasphemy: You’ll know it when you taste it.

Annie Johnson is an experienced R&D brewer, IT specialist, and national beer judge. Her awards include 2013 American Homebrewer of the Year honors.

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