Thursday, January 31, 2013

Brew-Day and Recipe: To Explore the Paradoxical Nature of the Black IPA is to Transgress the Threshold of Unutterable Madness

black IPA mash tun

Tasting notes for this batch are posted here.

What do you go for when you set out to brew the contradictory beast known as "black IPA"? It is perhaps one of the most conflicted, identity-crisis-afflicted styles in modern craft beer. I won't even get started on the whole debate of what to call the style, but maybe that's part of the problem: nobody has quite settled on what they want this beer to be. Let's take a look at the options.

First, the grain bill. Do you want a beer that is essentially just an IPA, but black in color? Then you go with whatever grain bill you'd use for a regular IPA, plus some Carafa III, which is basically the brewing equivalent of food coloring. There will be almost no roast flavor in the beer, begging the question, why do it at all? Or, you could go the opposite direction, and brew something like a light porter — aim for a thinner body and reduced roast — and hop the bejesus out of it. There is actually historical precedent for this, as English porter was shipped to India with large quantities of dry hops. You could call this interpretation the "East India Porter."  The problem here is that — if you really are going for an IPA and not a hoppy porter — the hop character will ultimately fade, leaving you with a beer that tastes like a skinny, spineless porter if it isn't fresh enough. This is the problem I most often encounter with black IPAs from so-so breweries: there's not nearly enough hop character to be a good IPA (even when fresh), and not enough roast or body to be a good porter or stout. A half-assed black IPA is a confusing and sad thing.

The third option, as I see it, is to brew an IPA that is a bit more creamy and full-bodied than its pale crisp cousins, with a touch of smooth roast character. The best black IPAs (or Cascadian Dark Ales, if you insist, Deschutes) have landed in this precarious middle-ground. How to do this? There are, still, a number of ways you could go about it. Hop in the Dark, one of my favorites, has a pretty complex grain bill — more complex than I want to start out with this one. It also leans a bit closer to "porter" than I wanted to go, so for my "Black Ale of the Woods with a Thousand Hops," as I'm calling it, I'm deriving the color from black wheat malt, chocolate rye malt, and Carafa II (I would have used Carafa III, but it wasn't available at the time). Though I don't have a ton of experience with the chocolate versions of wheat and rye, my understanding is that they have a much subtler, slighter roast than other black malts. My hope is that not only will they add that touch of dark flavor, but more so the body and creaminess I desire. As I'm fermenting this with Conan yeast, I have no doubt I'll at least get that part right. All the beers that I've brewed with Conan have had a wonderfully smooth, creamy mouthfeel, regardless of grain bill or finishing gravity.

Then, of course, the hops. Commercially, I don't see a whole lot of variation in black IPAs — they stick to whatever hops the beer would employ if it were a regular IPA. In other words, the "black" nature of the brew is ignored once the grain bill is established, and you just use whatever hop varieties you fancy. This works, certainly, but I feel that it's a bit unimaginative. I would never tell you that Citra, Simcoe or Amarillo aren't awesome, but if you're adding the dimension of "roast" to an IPA, perhaps this invites a different hop profile as well? I've long wondered why I never see an "English black IPA" — the earthy, spicy character of British hops would seem to compliment that hint of roast well, and as I alluded to before, there's some historical precedent for this with the "East India Porter."

I didn't aim squarely for an English black IPA with this brew; just something along those lines. There are a couple hop varieties that I have been fascinated with for a while, and my black IPA finally gave me the chance to play around with them. Brewer's Gold and Bramling Cross are said to have black currant notes as well as some spiciness and resin, while Pacific Gem is a newish hop from New Zealand with notes of blackberry and spice, and most intriguingly, oak and wood. It sounds wholly unique and delicious — as most of these bitchin' new NZ hops tend to be. (Must be all the sheep manure?) Those three together might sound a little odd for a pale beer, but for a big, dark, and evil black IPA? Well, I'm going to find out.

And finally: if you understand the reference I'm making with the beer's name — Black Ale of the Woods with a Thousand Hops — then we are friends, and you win a prize. (The prize is that we are friends).

To read the tasting notes on this batch, click here.

4.5 Gal., All Grain
Brewhouse Efficiency: 82%
Mashed at 148 degrees for 75 minutes
Fermented at 63 F, let warm slowly to 68 after 3 days
OG: 1.064 / 15.6 Brix
FG: 1.015
ABV: 6.4%

84.2 % Canada Malting pale malt
7.9 % chocolate wheat malt
5.3 % chocolate rye malt
2.3 % Carafa II

Hop Schedule-
100 IBU
1 oz Pacific Gem @FWH
1 oz Pacific Gem @10 - 0 min
2 oz Brewer's Gold @10 - 0 min
1 oz Bramling Cross @10 - 0 min
2 oz Pacific Gem dry hopped 5 days
1 oz Brewer's Gold dry hopped 5 days
1 oz Bramling Cross dry hopped 5 days

Conan (The Alchemist proprietary strain)


  1. Well thought out. Can't wait to hear the results.
    What's up with the winter warmer?

    1. Thanks!

      You mean the spruce / maple / oak beer I brewed forever ago? I actually finally bottled it the other week. I'll have a post about it in a few more weeks, but long story short, "spruce essence" turns out to be an insanely, unbelievably potent substance even in very small quantities, and I had to take various countermeasures to try to mellow it out. It was a bit of a mess.

    2. that was the ingredient I was most interested in. Figured it would be a major player. I'll look for it in a couple of weeks

    3. Yeah, I love the idea of spruce beers but never had time to harvest actual spruce tips last year. Though I've since had beers brewed with real spruce tips that tasted like borderline Pine-Sol too. It's a tricky ingredient apparently.

  2. Interesting... looking forward to hearing how it turns out, especially with your hop combination (as opposed to the Simcoe/C-hop combo so often used).

    Haven't brewed a Black IPA yet, but I'm planning on one soon. Can't resist the Hill Farmstead James clone recipe in Mitch Steele's IPA book... gotta go with that one!

    1. So far it's tasting great, I think. It's dry-hopping now, and I'll be bottling it sometime this weekend. I agree, that James recipe is tempting, I might have to give it a go next time too.

    2. I read your other post where you reviewed Steele's book.. I think you mentioned something about the water likely being so important to ANY Hill Farmstead clone. I agree completely... wish I had an idea of what I should be steering my water profile to!

    3. I know! Yeah, I was really hoping there would be at least a hint as to how Hill treats his water in the book. He is either super deliberate with his water profile, or he just has magic well water. My guess is that he keeps the profile "softer" than most breweries do, especially for IPAs. His hoppy beers have a really soft mouthfeel and don't ever have a very aggressive, harsh bitterness.

  3. Exactly... I don't think you'd want to be aiming too high for the sulfate level for his IPAs and APAs. I'd even consider doing a cold-steep of the darker grains for his James recipe, to decrease the astringency there.

    1. For sure. Another thing I've noticed: my favorite IPAs (Hill Farmstead IPAs, Heady Topper, Kern River Citra) are extremely hazy compared to most off-the-shelf IPAs. Probably partly because of the huge dosage of hop particles and lack of filtering. But I suspect it may also be due to the softer water profile and lower level of bicarbonates, which tend to help a beer to clear faster, from my understanding. Perhaps another clue, perhaps a red herring.

  4. Hmmm... good point. Definitely something that warrants looking into more.

    Unrelated, but speaking of Citra DIPA... always have wanted to try that beer. I was in San Diego a year ago but couldn't find it anywhere. Brewed the clone from CYBI in the fall and it was fantastic... I can only imagine how great the real thing must be!

    The recipe and notes I went with are on my blog, if you're interested in checking out the results.

  5. Yeah, it's one that you have to really go out of your way for, I guess; I think it's only released a few times a year, and there's a big release day event at the brewery and everything. I doubt much makes it out to store shelves.

    I listened to that podcast the other month, sounds awesome and pretty spot on. Checking the entry on your blog out now!


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