Back in late 2010, we first introduced you to a beer style that was gaining serious traction among producers and drinkers alike. The style name topic was a hot one, and the debate had a classic east-versus-west vibe. Both sides of the coast were vying for official recognition of the style—and some serious bragging rights. The team names, Cascadian Dark Ale in the west and Black IPA in the east, both tried to stake their claim in the record books.
The results? The Brewers Association stepped in and listed a new item in their Beer Style Guidelines for 2010: American-style India Black Ale. In 2011, the name was revised to American-Style Black Ale. But both versions of the style still exist.
Sources trace the style’s roots back to the early 1990s when Vermont-based brewing icon Greg Noonan developed Blackwatch, a Black IPA. Many examples followed, including Alchemist’s El Jefe Black IPA in 2003 and Stone’s Sublimely Self Righteous Ale in 2007.
Then a movement developed in the Pacific Northwest for a new breed of the brew. Called Cascadian Dark Ale, or CDA, these beers carried the same basic genetic makeup as existent Black IPA offerings but focused heavily on regionality, particularly where the ingredients were sourced from (“Cascadia” referring to the Cascade Mountain Range, the vicinity of where Cascade hops are grown).
Then came Oakshire Brewing with their O’Dark:30, the first bottled beer clearly labeled “Cascadian Dark Ale,” and the drama really began. Northeast brewers were insulted, while Pacific Northwest brewers felt entitled to develop something unique and regionally their own. A compromise had to be found; hence, the new, official category: American-Style Black Ale.
Today, American brewers are (of course) interested in imperial versions of the style, which we review below. For those looking for something a bit more traditional (i.e. roasty without the hop infusion), we also check out some American porters.
Alaskan Brewing Co. Pilot Series Double Black IPA (American Black Ale; Alaskan Brewing Co., AK); $9/22 oz, 92 points. This is a big, bold black IPA that isn’t shy on aromas or flavors. Jet black in color, assertive notes of roasted malt, coffee, toasted bread and chocolate abound, with additional hop accents of pine resin, orange rind and grapefruit zest adding verve and lift to the otherwise rich, dense profile and medium-weight mouthfeel. The finish is long and laced with decadent roasted hazelnut and chocolate-covered orange flavors.
Uinta Dubhe Imperial Black IPA (American Black Ale; Uinta Brewing Company, UT); $9/12 oz 4 pack, 92 points. Immediately dark and intense looking, this opens with assertive aromas of resiny hop oil and toasted hemp seed that are framed by notes of lush roasted malt, peanut skin, bittersweet chocolate and dried dark fruits. The malty core takes center stage on the plush palate, with a creamy texture that’s lifted on the finish by bitter twangs of pressed hop flower and grapefruit pith. Overall, its a satisfying, flavorful and complex brew that delivers additional nuance with each sip.
Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co. Big Cone American Black Ale (American Black Ale; Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co., CA); $9/12 oz 4 pack, 90 points. The clever name suggests what to expect in the glass: Bold, assertive hop characteristics. The bouquet delivers on that promise, with forward scents of grapefruit peel and pine resin alongside supporting aromas of chocolate malt and freshly roasted coffee bean. The palate is initially malty and full, with a creamed coffee flavor and smooth texture, while the finish steers back toward an astringent, pine tar flavor that lingers.
21st Amendment Brewery Back in Black Black IPA (American Black Ale; 21st Amendment Brewery, CA); $12/12 oz 6 pack, 88 points. This pours a dark brown-black color, with a soft off-white head that falls fast. Aromas of coffee, baking spice and roasted malt are soft but noticeable, seeming warm and inviting. The medium-bodied mouthfeel is cleansed by brisk carbonation, lifting the rich malty core and black coffee flavor. A subtle astringency hits the finish, fading quickly and ending clean. It’s surprisingly sessionable despite the alcohol.
Alaskan Brewing Co. 2014 Smoked Porter (American Porter; Alaskan Brewing Co., AK); $9/22 oz, 95 points. ABC’s vintage-dated smoked porter is always a superb selection, year after year, and one that’s incredibly deserving of a spot in your beer cellar. The 2014 release is currently young and aggressive, with forward scents of smoked malt and campfire that are grounded in notes of fig, prune, tobacco leaf and chocolate. The mouthfeel is big and bold, yet smooth and creamy, with a lush and supple texture and decadent flavors of Whoppers, mocha and roasted coffee bean. Hints of s’mores and hickory bacon dance on the long finish. It’s hard to ignore the pleasure of drinking this beauty now, but this will continue to gain complexity and nuance in the years, and even decade, to come. Cellar Selection.
High Water Brewing Aphotic Imperial Porter (American Porter; High Water Brewing, CA); $8/22 oz, 90 points. This is a clean, balanced and straightforward American porter, offering attractive notes of chocolate malt, roasted coffee bean and a hint of dried fruit, like plum and fig. It’s opaque black in color, with a thick tan-colored head that lingers nicely. The palate is rich and creamy, with thick bittersweet chocolate and black coffee flavors that linger on the finish, alongside a subtle, drying astringency.
Stone Smoked Porter with Vanilla Bean 2014 Release (American Porter; Stone Brewing Co., CA); $9/22 oz, 90 points. With this selection, what you see is what you get—a bold, flavorful porter that boasts assertive aromas and flavors of sweet smoke, roasted malt, charred oak and fresh vanilla bean. The smoke is quite powerful on the nose and mouth, and dominates the overall profile. The mouthfeel is smooth and the palate is sweet, with background accents of roasted nuts, coffee bean and resin. It’s delicious now, but this is also a beer that could spend some time in your cellar; try in 2016.