Are you sitting comfortably? Part 1 In The Beginning

Wholesale Manager Pete Brissenden tells the fascinating story of Black IPA – a British history in two parts

PART 1 - In The Beginning

The story starts in a brewpub in 1990 in Vermont. Owner of the Vermont Pub & Brewery Greg Noonan and his head brewer, Glenn Walter create a beer called Blackwatch IPA. It is a paradox. It is a heavily hopped, dark beer called a Black India Pale Ale. Over the next twenty years this hoppy, dark beer will come to be popular all over the world, starting in the Pacific Northwest and eventually heading over to the UK and by 2012 have a recognised BJCP subcategory officially recognising it as a style.

Despite the contradictory name, black IPA is usually brewed with a fairly traditional, modern American IPA grist. Pale malted barley, a touch of caramalt for body and not a lot else. The hopping too is pretty traditional, additions of Pacific Northwest favourites like Cascade, Centennial and Chinook are all common, as most black IPAs tend to lean toward the citric rather than tropical end of flavours. The dark malts that are added are where the magic happens. By definition a black IPA should have a light touch of roast character, but nowhere near what an American Porter, which can also be heavily hopped would do. The most commonly used dark malt used in black IPA is Weyermann’s Carafa Special III. This is a de-husked, roasted malt barley that imparts light coffee and chocolate notes but adds almost no roasty bitterness like chocolate malt or roasted barley would.

In a regular beer, the grist would be mashed in with hot water, left to stand to convert starch to sugar, then sparged to rinse the sugars out of the grains and into the kettle to await hopping and boiling. In many black IPAs, the mash stand will happen as usual for an hour, and the Carafa III will be ‘capped’ on top of the mash before the sparge. The idea being that as the sparge starts the colour, less of the flavour will be rinsed from the dark malt. Some breweries go even further than this in the quest to create a dark beer with minimal roast character. The much loved originators Brodies brewery used to brew a pale beer and then add Sinamar, a product developed again, by Weyermann in Germany which is a sterile, stable liquid form of Carafa 3. This has even less bitterness than the malt itself and is used in many breweries post fermentation to correct colour in beers.

Following on from Greg Noonan’s first effort at a dark hoppy beer, others who jumped on the style early were Colorado’s Avery Brewing with their New World Porter which was released in 1997, Rogue Ales with their first brew of Skull Splitter in 2003 and Phillips Brewing in Canada, who brewed Skookum Cascadian Dark in 2004. Eventually, by 2006, Stone Brewing released their own version as the brewery’s 11th Anniversary Ale. It was later branded as Sublimely Self Righteous Ale, and it went on to win the bronze at the Great American Beer Festival in 2010, which was the first year that the GABF recognized American-Style Black Ale as a category. By this point, most of the classic West Coast breweries were making an example of the style, and this is where its journey to London begins.

London Calling
On a Saturday in very late July in 2010, a few of us met at the now closed BrewWharf in London Bridge to make some beer on their tiny 4bbl kit. Phil Lowry, who set up the London Brewers’ Alliance (this will become important later on) and is now running sales for Simply Hops in Europe and South Africa, plus co-owning Dover’s Breakwater Brewery which now houses the brewhouse that was in Brew Wharf … Angelo Scarnera, who went on to be Moncada’s head brewer … Steve Skinner, who was also working at Gadd’s Brewery down in Kent at the time and has now retired back to sunny San Diego … and me.
Phil had travelled extensively in California in the early 2000s and had gone to university there for a while too. He’d bar and brewery hopped and gotten to know quite a few of the brewers and bar staff really very well. His favourite brewpub, 21st Amendment, provided the jumping off point recipe-wise, with memories of brewers Shaun ‘Sully’ O’Sullivan and Jesse Houck sharing their black IPA, Back In Black, with him. We got stuck in. Military Intelligence, an often quoted oxymoron, was born. It got poured in cask at Brew Wharf and in keg at the Lovibonds taproom in Henley on Thames, where I was working at the time, to very positive reviews.

Sharing is Caring
As mentioned earlier, Phil was a key figure in getting the London Brewers’ Alliance set up. Funnily enough, this also happened in 2010, and the first few breweries involved forged strong links and bonds. Phil brought a bottle of a US brewed black IPA to one of the first LBA meetings where everybody tasted it. One of the first to be inspired by this was Paddy Johnson who along with a couple of others had set up Windsor & Eton brewery in April of 2010. He was keen to brew an interpretation of the style and so Phil passed on a version of the recipe for Military Intelligence. Windsor & Eton’s beer Conqueror was first brewed. Slightly lower in gravity, so a little more cask strength friendly, there was still some shared DNA there. Windsor and Eton upped the ante later with a stronger version on keg called Conqueror 1075.

From there, Evin at the Kernel also brewed their own take on the style, and when I asked about the history of the recipe he recalls ‘the first Black IPA we brewed was based to some degree on talking with Phil, but I can't recall if we worked off a recipe or whether we had just been chatting about things.’ Same difference, in the end. Two things that were definitely from Phil were the use of Carafa III in the sparge to give colour but as little roast as possible and the hop bill - Simcoe, Columbus, Centennial.

For a beer whose inspiration is mostly a gimmick, to see dark beer but not taste it - and we are not ones that hold to gimmickery of any sort - Black IPAs have worked surprisingly well for us and others. It might be something to do with the affinity of dark malts for London water. Or having some of the forgiveness that is in a porter spread over into a pale, hoppy beer - dark beers are much more forgiving to brew, flavour wise. Or just something that the little slick of chocolate and sweetness from the Carafa III and the big body transmuting the hops into something other than they would come through as in a pale beer, but still tasting really good - more rose petal, rose water, more floral notes, lavender - things we get rarely in our pale hoppy beers.

Like all things, our Black IPA has evolved and gotten leaner. Phil's recipes always had lots of speciality malts, in this case caramalt and Munich, which we have abandoned. Hops have usually remained close to Simcoe and Centennial.
I’ll publish part two of this next month, where I’ll look at the common thread that runs through a few more London black IPAs and how the starting point for this beer filtered down to the homebrew level …

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