Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Black IPA. A Call to Style.

I have always been a fan of Widmer Brother’s Brewing Company. From their now retired Snow Plow Milk Stout to their ubiquitous Hefeweizen, I have never met a Widmer I didn’t like. Kurt and Rob Widmer brew up some constantly nice ales. And lately they seem to be turning up heat, and turning some heads, in the craft beer world.

As a Recognized beer judge through the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) I am a believer of establishing guidelines and brewing in accordance with them. Though with that belief I also hold the understanding that rules are made to be broken and boundaries are meant to be pushed. If breweries only brewed to style then where would be the room for innovation and advancement in brewing? The craft beer industry, brewers and consumers alike, thrive on pushing the limits and redefining the edge of where the art of brewing can take us.

This year Widmer Brother's released their annual series the W'10. Touted as a "Pitch Black IPA", Widmer is stirring up a buzz in beer geek circles for this seemingly new color of IPA. While the BJCP allows quite a range in color for IPA’s, from medium gold to medium red-dish copper, black is not allowed.

Widmer isn’t by any means the first to burn their IPA to black. Stone and Brewdog recently teamed up to brew a Black Double Belgian IPA called Bashah. Some have called Victory Brewing’s Yakima Twilight a Black IPA, even though Victory doesn’t set a guideline on their website. Beer Advocate lists Yakima Twilight as an American Strong Ale. And late last year Deschutes Brewery of Bend, OR released a Black IPA called Longshadow, though as far as I can tell it was only available on tap at their pubs in Bend and Portland, suggesting it is still in the experimental stages.

Widmer’s W’10 is arguably the most widely distributed Black IPA to date, I am certain it will be gaining rapid momentum as the year progresses. It’s an excellent example of a style, that isn’t. In fact at the 2009 GABF, Widmer’s W’10 won a Gold Medal in the “Out of Category - Traditionally Brewed Category”. That’ll mess with your head, a category for beers that are out of category... I personally reviewed this beer recently and found it to be an excellent balance between dark bread-like malts and bitter citrus bite that doesn’t disappoint your urge for hops.

The topic of Black IPA’s was brought up almost exactly a year ago on the Beervana blog, discussing the Arctic Apocalypse from Laurelwood Brewing Company.

“...a few Oregon breweries have dabbled with stained IPAs. The idea doesn't appear to extend beyond coloring a standard style--sort of like green St. Patrick's Day beer--and the trick is to achieve darkness without changing the flavor.”
- (1/12/09)

Laurelwood’s Arctic Apocalypse appear’s to have been a one-off brew considering they don’t list the beer on their website, and Beer Advocate only received one review of the beer. While at the time Beervana discusses the idea of “staining”, I believe we have moved well beyond the simple distinction of color for this style of beer.

With the W’10, Widmer has taken the Black IPA to the masses. As their Hefeweizen defined the American Wheat category, I expect their W’10 to push the envelope of IPA’s into a new realm of color and flavor. I call for the Black IPA to become a recognized style by the Craft Beer Industry and the BJCP. The new style of 2010. The Black IPA style showcases the qualities of hops, balancing their grapefruit bitterness with the roasted and sweet chocolate qualities of dark malts.

Pitch black, roasted and bitter. Sounds delicious.

1 comment:

  1. I firmly believe that the BJCP and what actually is being crafted are two separate things. This whole Black IPA craze is a perfect example. If the BJCP represented industry trends, it would have recognized this style about a decade ago when it first began. John Maier chewed this style up and spit it out years ago with Brewer's Memorial Ale and Black Brutal.
    Beer isn't meant to be catagorized and labeled. That's what makes it a craft industry. Doesn't a day when everything that is mashed, boiled and fermented is fitted into an Excel spreadsheet sound boring to you?
    And "pushing the envelope"!? The only push W'10 gives is one from their marketing department to "jump on board" with as little money as possible actually going into the beer.
    This under-hopped, overly-roasted black mess will surely make its way to a Safeway near you, and when it does, vote with your wallet and let them know, if they want to jump on the bandwagon, their going to have to do it well.


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Beer enthusiast and advocate. Recognized beer judge and traveler of west coast beer destinations.