Thursday, March 28, 2013

Black IPA with 'Black-Fruit' Hops - Tasting Notes

Brewery: Bear Flavored
Style: Black IPA
Brewed: 1.27.2013
ABV: 6.4%

Appearance: black, thick tan head, good lacing, good head retention
Smell: mellow hoppiness, raspberry, currants, melon, 
chocolate, coffee, earth
Taste: creamy Conan fruitiness, raspberry, currants, chocolate, coffee, earth, bitter finish
Mouthfeel: high carbonation, medium bodied, creamy

Even though it was a "short-turnaround" brew, I've already posted the recipe and brew-day notes for this black IPA, aka Black Ale of the Woods with a Thousand Hops. (I hope there is at least one person who gets that H.P. Lovecraft reference). In that post, I talked at length about my intentions behind this recipe, but I guess I should still summarize quickly: I wanted a creamy, medium-bodied black IPA with a slight roast character, though still a few steps below a porter. And rather than using the same hop regime as I'd use for a standard pale IPA, I wanted to play around with a few less common varieties: Brewer's Gold and Bramling Cross, two old school varieties with an earthy, fruity character described as "black currant," and Pacific Gem, a New Zealand variety that hasn't gotten the same traction as its peers, though its "blackberry and oaky wood," description has long intrigued me. This was also my first batch fermented with a re-up of Conan yeast, as well as another first: my first IPA with an adjusted water profile.

Despite my previous experience with Conan as a powerhouse yeast, this batch actually didn't hit the Final Gravity I was expecting of it, stopping around 1.015. (I will address this a bit more after the tasting notes, so stick around if you're interested in the technical observations). As a result, it over-carbed a bit in the bottle, despite the fact that I lowered my priming sugar addition (slightly) to compensate. That ended up being the only real flaw of the beer, though there are a few things I might tweak in further experiments.

Other than the carbonation, I'm pretty pleased with how this came out. I think my hop strategy, combined with Conan yeast, resulted in an unique, tasty beer that stands on its own next to most C-hopped standards, if you're willing to approach it as something different. On the other hand, it's nothing revolutionary and not very likely to re-write the history of black IPAs. While full of flavor, the aroma comes across as mild. I'm glad I kept the ABV a bit lower on this than my standard IPA range, because it works best as a closer-to-session ale; it just doesn't have that reach-out-and-dropkick-you hoppiness that one demands of a really transcendent IPA. The aroma gives hints of blackberry hop character, earth and spice, along with Conan's remarkable, rounded fruitiness. Given the four ounces of dry-hops, I had hoped for more, but it's not entirely surprising to me that Brewer's Gold and Bramling Cross don't make for the best dry hops. It's hard to say how assertive the character of Pacific Gem is, and whether it's worth focusing on with this concept. Before brewing this again, I think I want to brew a Pacific Gem single-hop to get a feel for its character.

Still, working together, these three hops more-or-less hit the flavor profile I wanted, and for that I am a happy camper. While I should again reiterate that this is not the most in-your-face hoppy IPA ever, I really enjoy drinking it. It's an interesting marriage of Conan's fruitiness (which I will never tire of), a background general "hoppiness", and the more specific blackberry / black currant flavor provided by those hops. The big question mark going into this brew was how specific that flavor would be. While it's nowhere near the "holy shit that smells like a jar of strawberries" that I got with my Belma / Conan IPA, it's still easy enough to pick out, and pleasantly nuanced. There are nice hints of a wild, prickly black raspberry character, blended with assorted berries, currants, and ripe dry fruit — doused in coffee and earthy piney general hoppiness. However you want to describe it, these hops mesh well with the creamy, smooth roast character and a bumped-up bitter finish (thanks to my water treatment).

And regarding that water treatment: this batch is holding up over time much better than my previous IPAs, which started out with big hop flavor but faded fast, seeming to lack a backbone after only two or three weeks.

Other than the too-high carbonation, the body is almost perfect, I think — Conan reliably creates a creamy and rich mouthfeel. And while fermentation cut short a few gravity points higher than I was looking for, there's nothing overly-sweet about the beer. It finishes brisk and clean, and remains highly drinkable from top to bottom. Which leads me to that technical observation I mentioned before: after drinking this batch and comparing it to my previous Conan batches in my head, it occurred to me that both this one and my Belma IPA ended up with a pretty similar level of carbonation. Slightly over-carbed, prone to a big foamy head if you poured aggressively, though not to the point of gushers or anything. It seems like the bottle-conditioning knocked off one more notch from the final gravity. Given that this has happened with all of my recent Conan-fermented IPAs, and zero of my other recent batches, I'm wondering if I can pass this off as a coincidence.

So it has occurred to me that Conan may have some other special need that I haven't been meeting. The first thing that comes to mind is: oxygen. Since I started brewing, I have been following the old "pour vigorously, shake bucket vigorously," method, which for the most part, has served me fine. Again: all my recent non-Conan batches were given the same treatment, and fermentation finished as expected. Nor was this a temp issue, as Conan can go significantly lower than most ale yeast, and my house hasn't been any colder than usual. My pitching rates were fine, and the yeast seemed more than happy while on the stir-plate. So far as I can figure, the major remaining variable is my aeration methods. Different yeasts have different demands, and why shouldn't Conan — a super-attenuator — demand more oxygen than its peers?

As soon as this thought occurred to me, I went online and ordered a pure-oxygen aeration wand system. I'll be brewing a Simcoe single-hop IPA with Conan soon, and that'll give me a chance to test out this whole aeration theory of mine. However, I should mention that other homebrewers over at HomeBrewTalk are seeing some evidence — based on comments from John Kimmich at the Alchemist himself, in addition to their own experience — that Conan may simply lose some of its magic after a certain number of generations. It's possible that I simply harvested a late generation of Conan to start with, and thus I'm seeing diminished efficiency right off the bat. Time and further experimentation with tell.

The recipe and initial notes for this batch can be found here.


  1. Nice post, I appreciate your tasting notes, not something I'm very good at. I just finished brewing a CDA with Conan and did a write up on my observations on Conan yeast, different generations, and results from some experiments.

    1. Thanks! Lots of great information in your post, reading through it now.

  2. Sorry for posting on something more than 2 yrs old, but have you ever brewed this again? Anything you would change? Do you have any recommendation on a different yeast strain if someone can't get Conan?


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