The Black Dossier: Black Rocks v Proper Black v Kernel Black IPA v Raven v Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale
I’ve avoided tasting posts recently, as I realised some months ago that it wasn’t my forté. However, with five black IPAs in the fridge, it seemed a shame not to do a little experiment, so here we go: five black IPAs enter the ring; only one will emerge victorious. With a style this nascent, but already verging on passé in some quarters, it’s worth seeing what it really has to offer, eh?
Buxton Brewery Black Rocks 5.5%
Prior knowledge: Nice on cask, from a very promising new brewery who specialise in hop-forward but drinkable beers. I met the guys from the brewery at North Bar recently and they were lovely.
Label-derived facts: Contains Columbus, Cluster and Southern Cross hops.
Blackness: Pretty bloody opaque to start off with, in a full glass. Not priest-sock black, but cola-like round the sides as it gets to the bottom.
Aroma: Nice light citrusy aroma. Bodes well.
Taste: Good, very slightly oily mouthfeel. Acidic, citric taste (unspecific fruit) and a little blackcurrant, some background espresso roastiness. Is light roastiness good or bad in a black IPA? Bad for the illusion, but when you boil it down, perhaps this is the genre’s USP?
Turning to the dark side rating: 7/10. A good very, drinkable beer and a fine example of the form. Smells great, but I would prefer a more malty US-style IPA or a pale ale with some fresher fruitiness. For more on Black Rocks, see Hopzine.
St Austell Proper Black 6%
Prior knowledge: Black version of Proper Job, which is an excellent bold IPA and arguably the best widely-available cask beer in Cornwall. Original beer named after some Cornish regiment’s involvement in quashing the Indian Mutiny, presumably explaining the strikingly bitter aftertaste.
Label-derived facts: Brewer’s Gold, Chinook, Centennial, Cascade hops. Their own yeast. You can’t have any of St Austell’s yeasty goodness. Their mycoculture is their castle.
Blackness: Less opaque than above, but black enough. At least as black as Guinness Original, I reckon.
Aroma: Less than the Black Rocks, light and citrusy but slightly bready too.
Taste: Thinner and certainly more savoury and traditional on the tongue, much more like an English pale ale. Fizzy with larger bubbles, despite also being bottle conditioned. Not exactly kicking my arse with the bitterness, immediately following the Black Rocks. More dark chocolate than coffee in the roastiness, as well as a little bit of nuttiness.
Turning to the dark side rating: 6/10. A pleasant beer but not one that really shows off the appeal of the style. Faced with this and a Proper Job, I might choose either depending on my mood, but would go for the Proper Job 66% of the time.
The Kernel Berwery India Pale Ale Black 7.2%
Prior knowledge: I like this. Glyn from the Rake collaborated in the brewing of it. Kernel are basically this one bloke who sold cheese at Borough Market and developed his home-brewing into his job. Blessed are the cheesemakers.
Label-derived facts: It’s a black IPA from Kernel. It’s bottle conditioned. It’s best before March 2013 (really?).
Blackness: Quite black. It’s got a lot darker since I opened the first bottle so difficult to say. Basically they’re all dark brown really, but Dark Brown India Pale Ale isn’t as compelling a name for a style. None of them are “priest-sock black”.
Aroma: Stunning. Big, heady aroma with passion fruit, lychee, all that tropical stuff that you get in cans of Rubicon.
Taste: A slightly fizzy mouthfeel that merits a bit more swirling to knock the bubbles out. After that much smoother. The rich and lasting tropical citrus bitterness is great and pretty much eclipses any roasted malt flavours until the death, where there is a smooth chocolatey whimper in the night.
Turning to the dark side rating: 8/10. Really nice, but I still prefer some of Kernel’s non-black IPAs. The brilliant distinguishing hoppy freshness of the Kernel range is very slightly cut short by the underlying roastiness. It is very lovely though. Mmmm…
Thornbridge Raven 6.6%
Prior knowledge: The first Black IPA I ever had, from cask in the Narrow Boat in Skipton on the day before my 30th birthday. It was sensational then, but I’ve rarely had it since and never from the bottle.
Label-derived facts: Nelson Sauvin, Centennial and Sorachi Ace hops. Maris Otter, Black and Chocolate malts.
Aroma: Right from the first smell you get the roastiness along with the pine and fruitiness.
Taste: This mixture of flavours comes through to the taste. There is much more coffeelike maltiness than the previous examples, but it still doesn’t dominate and the fairly complex-tasting varieties of hops come together into a wonderfully sweeping mixture of bitterness. Not too bitter though, but a drink to really savour, with the warm booziness more obvious than the Kernel.
Turning to the dark side rating: 9/10. Suddenly Black IPAs make sense: a fantastic beer all round. There’s a good malt flavour in here that is perfectly balanced with the rich bitterness and solid ABV. However, it could easily be described as a light hoppy porter; you definitely would not mistake this beer for a normal IPA if you closed your eyes.
Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale 8.7%
Prior knowledge: 100/100 on ratebeer. Crikey. This one’s a bit old, unfortunately. Big hoppy Stone beers seem to be slightly past their best when they get to us in the UK and then I went and sat on this bottle for a couple of months. Idiot.
Label-derived facts: Blah blah blah “first brewed in 2007 as the Stone 11th Anniversary Ale” blah blah blah “thusly” blah.
Blackness: Black, ruby notes around the edge when held up to the light.
Aroma: Woah! Big, strong malty high-ABV US IPA smell, with even more molasses.
Taste: Dark, liquorice, bitter, very richly flavoured indeed; really big and viscous. Calls out for some food and a glass of water to break it up a bit. There’s a lot of slightly acidic bitterness, but no obvious fruitiness. Loads of dark fiercely bitter chocolate malt.
Turning to the dark side rating: 7/10. Perhaps less fresh than it should have been, this bottle is an enormous, dark, malty, bitter and interesting drink to sip slowly. It’s not an IPA though… or not any more, anyway.
The Black Gospel
Firstly I should say that I felt that I got value for money for each of these bottles. They were all, at the very least, good beers from great breweries. I think that I should caveat the above by saying the Stone beer was older than it really should have been, so don’t let me put you off a fresh bottle.
After trying all of them over a few nights, it’s clear there’s a balance to be struck with Black IPAs. You can pretend that there’s no dark malt involved at all and try to surprise people, or you can embrace a limited amount of roastiness and make a great beer with [Greg Wallace voice] big hop flavours [/Greg Wallace voice]. That’s what Thornbridge Raven is: a wonderful, sophisticated, superbly balanced beer that expertly exploits the best features of the style. But what else do you expect from Thornbridge?