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Brewing the American Black Ale

Whether you call it black IPA, Cascadian dark, or something else, this unholy union of hops and darkness enjoys a cult following that continues to watch the style evolve.

Jeff Alworth Feb 5, 2024 - 10 min read

Brewing the American Black Ale Primary Image

Photo: Matt Graves

If you wanted to start a friendly fight a decade and a half ago, you could do it in two words: “black IPA.” And sometimes it wouldn’t remain friendly.

In the late aughts, craft beer was turning toward hops, and IPAs were on their way to becoming the key American style—or, more accurately, the key American family of styles. Their popularity was such that breweries were spinning off variations such as double and triple IPAs, red IPAs, Belgian IPAs, and so on. These sparked their own controversies, but nothing like black IPAs, a style whose very name irritated people. It wasn’t just the oxymoron at the center of the name—black and pale?—that stirred people up. Few seemed to agree about what the style should be, and rival camps formed.

Some breweries were shooting for an optical illusion: tastes like an IPA, looks like a stout. Others thought it should be a bit roasty and that the roast bitterness should battle, cats-in-a-bag-style, with equally punchy, resinous hops. Certain agitators in the Pacific Northwest started making the case that the cats-in-a-bag version was a distinct, local thing that they called Cascadian dark ales (CDAs). No surprise, that just made the debate more contentious.

Younger drinkers might find all this amusing, given that black IPAs today are at best a marginal presence. Yet, in retrospect, the great black IPA debates of the late aughts signaled a shift that was happening in the industry. After a decade of consolidation and growth, we’ve entered a more cynical time. It’s hard to remember how deeply some people cared about craft beer. The question of who had the right to name, design, and sanction “new” styles made these debates feel somehow urgent, and there’s something charming in how riled up everyone was.

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Not Actually a Nascent Style

One thing few seemed to notice at the time, though: Hoppy dark ales weren’t new. American craft breweries had been making them for at least a decade, and they had even been labeling them black IPAs or CDAs for years. Furthermore, the idea of combining intense hops and dark malts wasn’t a modern American invention. Such beers have been around for centuries. Bearing that in mind puts them in a different light.

Hops and dark malts are hardly new arrivals on the beer scene—pale malt is the relative newcomer. Inevitably, brewers in past epochs would sometimes marry the two.

One of the easier places to find evidence of this is Ron Pattinson’s blog, Shut Up About Barclay Perkins (barclayperkins.blogspot.com), which he’s been writing since 2007—roughly the same era as the great black IPA debates. On his site, Pattinson has cataloged thousands of historical beer recipes from old brew logs and technical manuals. Among other things, these recipes show that porters and stouts often were highly hopped.

For example, there is a Barclay Perkins export stout from 1928 with calculated IBUs over 104, and it includes a dry-hop addition. Within the category of porters and stouts, Pattinson shares others that were stridently hoppy, including an 1859 ale—also from Barclay Perkins—called Export India. It wasn’t an IPA, though—it was, he writes, “the porter equivalent of IPA.”

The real ringer, however, was a dark, hop-forward beer popular in Burton, the famous pale-ale brewing center. Pattinson’s post about it includes a description from an 1888 brewing manual by Frank Faulkner of certain “black pale ales” popular at the time. To make these beers, the brewers used a different water lacking the stiff minerals that made the pales so distinctive. Faulkner writes: “Though black in colour, its palate taste reminds one very strongly of the pale beers produced by Burton firms.” Ron wrote about it specifically to debunk the idea that American breweries were making something novel.

We don’t even have to go to the British Midlands to find earlier precedents. One could argue that black IPAs are nothing more than renamed American stouts, which have always been hop-forward. The two styles, as described in the Great American Beer Festival guidelines, have similar descriptions and parameters. One difference: The GABF, perhaps wanting to avoid the oxymoron and preserve some neutrality, eschews “black IPA” and “Cascadian dark ale” altogether, opting for “American black ale” instead.

The Northwest-Norwegian Connection

Perhaps no one did more to raise awareness of the style than one of the those who was promoting CDAs, Abram Goldman-Armstrong. Arguably the Johnny Appleseed of the style, Goldman-Armstrong was a homebrewer and writer who, starting about 16 years ago, promoted the cause by collaborating with commercial breweries, submitting style guidelines to the Beer Judge Certification Program, and even staging a symposium to promote CDAs. In arguing for differences between black IPAs and CDAs, he managed to elevate both.

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Today, Goldman-Armstrong is head brewer at Fjordfolk, a brewery in Sandefjord, Norway, about 75 miles south of Oslo. Naturally, he brews a black-and-hoppy ale—and of course he calls it a Cascadian dark ale. In his view, the distinction still matters—even if “Cascadia” is bound to perplex Norwegians.

“The key to a good CDA,” he writes from Norway, “is the interplay between roasted malt and resinous hops [whereas] the goal with black IPA is to merely make an IPA appear black in color without changing the aroma or flavor significantly.”

Even if he successfully established the idea that those styles are distinct, most examples these days seem to fall somewhere in the middle. Breweries now tend to shoot for some darker base notes, even if they don’t go for full roast. On a recent trip through eastern Oregon, I enjoyed a pour of Barley Brown’s Turmoil, a 20-year-old brand with a rich chocolate note that helps to stabilize the hop intensity—like an iron fist inside a velvet glove. Most brewers achieve this with debittered roast malts, but they don’t want to completely forsake the flavors of dark malts. At 2nd Shift Brewing in St. Louis, for example, founder and brewer Steve Crider uses dehusked black malts to give his Dead & Alive Black IPA what he describes as “sweet roastiness.”

How brewers use hops also has evolved in the past 15 years. In Norway, Goldman- Armstrong hops his Mørkeredd (“fear of the dark”), in what he calls “a more modern manner,” with kettle additions moving toward the end of the boil, a large whirlpool addition, and lots of dry hops. (Note: Dry hopping has always been part of the deal; back in 2009, when describing a Cascadian dark collab, Goldman-Armstrong said they “dry-hop the shit out of it.”)

A big moment for him came this fall when Vinmonopolet, the Norwegian liquor-store monopoly, named Mørkeredd first among the country’s submissions, which means it will be available in all the state-owned outlets. Five-thousand miles from where he started, Goldman-Armstrong is still spreading the word about CDAs.

When he lists the hops that Fjordfolk uses, I see some familiar names: Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, and Simcoe, along with Amarillo and Lemondrop. Historically, the classic C-hop pine character was a major marker of style.

Many breweries stick with the forest theme, but some are increasingly shifting over to a more modern selection as well. “While ours does have a hint of pine-iness to it,” says Crider at 2nd Shift, “we chose to use predominantly Mosaic, Zythos, and Citra hops in our recipe.” In Wookey Jack, perhaps the most famous remaining example, Firestone Walker combines Citra and Amarillo, leaning more toward citrus than pine.

Before I wrote this article, I queried social media to get a glimpse of the consumer view on black IPAs. The reaction was illuminating. Rarely have I gotten such a positive response, and many who replied called it one of their favorite styles. Yet about two-thirds of the brands that people cited as ones they enjoyed are no longer in production. For those who love it, their passion hasn’t been enough to support many year-round examples.

Many brewers still enjoy the style, and some brands enjoy a cult following. In those cases, black IPAs can be solid seasonal sellers, often appearing in the winter at an imperialized strength. When they arrive, a certain set of diehard fans will show up in force to suck them down.

As for what we should call them, the debate over that may be as intrinsic to the style as the marriage of darkness and hops.

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