Thursday, January 9, 2014

Session Black IPA on Oak Chips - Recipe & Tasting Notes

Session Black IPA on Oak Chips

The Woods of Dunwich
Brewery: Bear Flavored
Style: Session Black Ale / Black IPA
Brewed On: 11.25.2013
Bottled On: 12.8.2013
ABV: 4.3%

Appearance: thick tan head, impenetrable black body, lingering creamy head retention
Smell: chocolate, mocha, earth, pine, dank dark fruit, floral, wood
chocolate, bitter coffee, pine, mellow roast, sweet raspberry, cream, wood / oak
Mouthfeel: med-high carbonation, light bodied, 
crisp, lingering bitter finish

For a style that seems relatively obvious and inevitable conceptually, the black IPA sure has a contentious background. There's that whole issue of what to even call it in the first place, and then the debate whether highly-hopped export porters for India were black IPA before anyone got cute enough to name it black IPA. After all that crisis of identity, it's no wonder that most black IPAs are a mixed bag.

When designing a recipe from scratch, I try not to think about style as a series of checkpoints to be ticked off. I try to approach beers conceptually, with desired flavors and structure as the markers, and any avenue that gets me there worth at least exploring. There's a time and a place for any kind of brewing, and styles definitely exist for a reason. But it's important to remember that there are many ways to achieve a goal, especially in brewing, with the insane variety of ingredients and techniques available to us today. Maybe the problem with black IPA is that it just hasn't found its own identity: it keeps repeating echos of earlier ideas, without fully defining its weird hybrid existence. If your goal is an IPA that just happens to be colored black, or a thinner version of a porter, are those really a new direction? I feel that, without a solid premise to stand on, there's a lot more room to fall off into forgetability.

When thinking about brewing a black IPA again, after my first attempt this last winter, I decided to move beyond my attempts to match dark fruity hops (hops with 'black currant' and 'black raspberry' notes) over the black base. Instead, I wanted to embrace the blackness in a different way: a beer that focused on all the dark earthy woodsy flavors the style implies in my mind. Seeking out woodsy flavors brought me back to the piney, dank realm of hops, with Columbus and Simcoe. Pine with hints of berry was the goal. Certainly Columbus and Simcoe are nothing ground-breaking or unique for any type of IPA, but I think they convey the identity I wanted to pin down. After drinking this over the last couple weeks, I think "The Woods of Dunwich" could use even more pine, so maybe I'll keep searching around for one more piney variety to throw in the mix. I do like the bit of fruit that still creeps out from the underbrush: hints of sweet berry, becoming prominent more after some time had based and the initial bitterness faded. I leaned on Columbus for whirlpool hopping due to my success with it in this year's hoppy brown ale, and kept Simcoe to the dry-hop for maximum aroma impact. I don't know that that was necessarily the perfect schedule, so as always, I will continue to tweak and play around with timings.

But beyond the hops, one of my main ideas was to keep the thing sessionable. Sure, thoughts of the dark menacing woods imply strong, fortified flavors and warming booze, but I wanted to see if I could make this just as interesting as a session ale. Why not? — you still need day-drinkers in winter, too. And to me, the black IPA sort of screams for session strength. The expected mellow roast and extra body means a lighter, sessionish-version can put that complicated grainbill to use, keep up a medium body and slick mouthfeel, while remaining light and drinkable. Really, the same strengths of a dry Irish stout, just with hop flavor thrown in the mix, adding another dimension of balance. I think this goal was met — you probably couldn't tell this was of a lower ABV unless I told you, though thanks to the lighter body, my bitterness may need some re-calibrating.

And finally, for yet another element of balance, I couldn't resist pushing that woodsy element even further: oak chips. Again, the flavor combinations seemed like a natural, complimentary fit to me. Used conservatively, oak does not have to give a prominent whiskey flavor: it can simply add to mouthfeel, with slightly creamy and vanilla notes. I erred on the conservative side with my oak addition — 1.25 ounces of medium-toast cubes — and the beer could stand a bit more; as is, the oak imparted some nice flavors to round out the dryness of the finish, with little hints of subtle vanilla and wood. But since, as I mentioned, the beer came out a bit more bitter and drying than I'd like, I didn't quite nail the balance I was hoping for. I would tone down the bittering and nudge up the oak just a bit. I want the result to be semi-dry but creamy, semi-bitter and roasty but also sweet and rich with vanilla and dark fruit.

Ultimately, I'm not sure this was as much of a departure as I was thinking it could be, which is both good and bad. It's a success on the whole, I think, sticking the flavors I wanted, while at the same time still tasting recognizably like a black IPA. It's holding up well over the weeks, too. With maybe a little more oak and a finely-tuned balance, I think this could be marked as something truly unique. And even more: I think it makes the case that a black IPA, taking advantage of its extra malts, can evolve into a session beer worth perfecting.

5 Gal., All Grain
Brewhouse Efficiency: 78%
Mashed at 151 degrees for 70 minutes
Fermented at 65 F, slow rise to 68 F after 3 days
OG: 1.045 / 11.1 Brix
FG: 1.012
ABV: 4.3%

65 % 2-row malt
12.3 % Golden Naked Oats
12.3 % rye
6.2 % Carafa III
4.3 % brown malt

Hop Schedule-
0.25 oz / 18 IBU Pacific Gem @FWH
0.75 oz / 18 IBU Pacific Gem @10 min
3 oz Columbus @0 + whirlpool 30 min
3 oz Simcoe dry hop 5 days

White Labs London Ale Yeast

Other Additions-
1.25 oz medium-toast American oak cubes


  1. Hey Bear! I just discovered your page. awesome work here! Had a question about your Black Session/ IPA, specifically about the oak, how long did you use them for? I recently did a porter with a White Oak honeycomb, my man at the store said 6 weeks was the magic number, but that was WAAAAY too long (for my tastes anyways). Thanks! Love the site, keep up the good work!

    1. Hey Scott, thanks! It was on oak for its entire time in the fermentor, which I believe was roughly 15 days. 6 weeks sounds pretty long for most beers, but it always depends on the style too. I don't think I left this on long enough (or actually, I don't think I added quite enough oak.) Another consideration is the form of the oak — chips are going to extract flavor fastst, cubes a lot slower, and those honeycombs probably somewhere in between.


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