10. Avery Anniversary Ale – Twenty One
City: Boulder, CO
The verdict: Okay, I have to admit: I used this black IPA tasting as a way for us to experiment with a few things. We knew the overall number of entries would be more limited than usual, so I acquired a few I wouldn’t have otherwise included, for one reason or another. As an India brown ale, this one comes close enough in terms of style guidelines, but there was a big “but” … this beer was bottled in mid-2014. Which is to say, it’s a 2-year-old hop-forward beer, but I couldn’t help being curious how it would do, and I figured Avery would appreciate there being one less bottle of it still on store shelves. And guess what? It’s still quite solid all that time later, presumably helped on by the 8.7% ABV. The hops have unsurprisingly faded, but what you’re left with is a solid, complex imperial brown ale or stout, combining biscuity malt, notable booze and dark fruitiness with whatever piney hops remain. It may be two years old, but we’d still be happy to drink another bottle.
9. Firestone Walker Wookey Jack
City: Paso Robles, CA
The verdict: Firestone Walker’s black IPA has become, to many, the absolute defining example of this style, and it’s perhaps the highest-rated example of it to be nationally available on a regular basis. In terms of balance, it definitely leans more heavily on the “IPA” portion of the style name, with assertive, resinous and grassy hops that project dank, weed-like aromatics that also include grapefruit citrus. The dark character isn’t as assertive or well-defined, with the rye in the malt bill giving the beer a bit of spiciness but not much in the way of char or roast. It’s a great black IPA for the hopheads in the audience, but there were a few examples of similar execution that most of the tasters ultimately preferred.
8. Maine Beer Co. Weez
City: Freeport, ME
The verdict: Maine Beer Co. has been a goliath in our blind-tasting series for just about every style they’ve ever entered, from IPA to stout, and their black IPA is only slightly less world-beating. Weez is significantly lighter of body than most of the other black IPAs on the table, with a fairly prominent roast component that is nevertheless different in character than others—light coffee, and with a crispness and lack of bitterness that reminds one more of the roast flavors you might find in a schwarzbier than a stout. Hops are also assertively present, with some pleasantly grassy, resinous and floral notes, and a touch of lemon citrus. It’s a well-balanced, drinkable black IPA that only lost points with a few tasters because there were some real flavor bombs up near the top of the rankings.
7. Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale
City: Milton, DE
The verdict: Make way for a real trailblazer of this style. Dogfish Head’s “nearly” black IPA may be the oldest good example of this beer on the market today that is produced as a year-rounder: Indian Brown Ale dates all the way back to 1999, a decade before the term even came into widespread use. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it stands out as noticeably different in a blind tasting, not necessarily by sight (although it is slightly lighter) but moreso in terms of flavor. Rather than classic American roastiness, you get more biscuit and nutty flavors, reminiscent of the maltiness of say, a German dunkel. Hops are also a bit unusual, on the herbal side with some additional citrus and almost a berry-like fruitiness. In a style where there’s a lot of similarities between the average entries, it’s funny to think that such an longstanding beer actually represents a pleasant change of pace, as long as you choose to include it.
6. Brew Kettle Black Rajah
City: Strongsville, OH
The verdict: This is definitely one we were excited to try, given that The Brew Kettle’s White Rajah IPA was the grand champion of our 116 IPA blind tasting; a beer that really came totally out of left field and floored the judges. The dark variant, Black Rajah, is nearly as good—distinctive enough, by the way, that at least one taster was able to correctly identify the same hop profile as the single IPA original. Like the White Rajah, it blasts the taste buds with resiny, sticky hop oils, with strong pine and orangey citrus flavors. If you ever describe your favorite hop flavors as “green,” then this is the kind of beer you’re looking for. The roastiness is restrained but firm, with good bitter coffee flavors that make one think of French roast or espresso. It’s unbalanced in favor of the drank, citrusy hops, but we have no complaint. It actually reminds us quite a bit of Firestone Walker’s Wookey Jack in that respect.
5. SweetWater Happy Ending
City: Atlanta, GA
The verdict: Alright, so here’s another beer I included as an experiment and to prove a point about the intangibility of the black IPA style guidelines. SweetWater refers to Happy Ending as either an American stout or an imperial stout, but they could just as easily label the beer as a black IPA if they wanted to, much the same as Avery’s New World Porter. I included it, wondering if it would actually stand out as more “stout-like” than the pack, and although it did somewhat, it wasn’t the biggest or richest beer in the full tasting. What it was, though, was quite delicious. Assertive and very flavorful, it’s “stoutness” comes through via density and a full mouthfeel, but I still imagine I would identify it as a black IPA in a totally blind setting. Dank, resinous hops are a signature, as they are in so many SweetWater beers, cutting a clean swath of hoppy flavors and hop-derived bitterness through ashy roast. It’s actually quite well-balanced—if it favors the malt, then it leans that way only slightly.
4. Short’s Brewing Co. Goodnight Bodacious
City: Bellaire, MI
The verdict: I’ve always had a feeling that Short’s, the underrepresented all-star brewery of far-northern Michigan, was going to place really high in one of these tastings at some point, and it looks like black IPA was their time. This beer is the reason why SweetWater Happy Ending isn’t the most “stout-like” of the group, because this beer truly feels and tastes massive … like an imperial black IPA/imperial stout/barleywine hybrid, if that’s possible. Cocoa is assertive on the nose, but what really jumps out at you is dark fruit, distinct booziness and a thick, luscious mouthfeel that is positively milkshake-like. Hops come through more in hop-derived bitterness than overt hoppy flavors, but tasters were still taken with how decadent a drinking experience it is. If we’re measuring all the beers in this tasting by sheer volume of flavor, this one might be the winner.
3. Founders Dark Penance
City: Grand Rapids, MI
The verdict: Dark Penance is a pretty classic American black IPA profile that has simply been turned up to 11. The hops are expressive and classic—a combination of citrus, pine and pleasant florals that pop without being overwhelming. Caramel sweetness is pronounced, giving the beer a sizeable body and heft, and coming close to balancing the charge of hops. Roast, meanwhile, is dialed back somewhat, certainly not as prominent as in the Short’s beer above. It’s a bit like taking one of the other solid, archetypal American black IPAs on the list and inflating its stature, all the more impressive considering that these bottles were actually on the older side. It’s one of those examples where if you tasted it with a blindfold on, you would invariably come to the conclusion that this was black IPA—it truly fits the definition of the style.
2. Wrecking Bar Brewpub Hopback Mountain
City: Atlanta, GA
The verdict: We’ve been enjoying the draft-only offerings of Atlanta’s Wrecking Bar Brewpub for a long time, but we’ve never had any of them bottled for a blind tasting before. After receiving this one, we can understand why they waited for black IPA to spring bottles on us. It’s an exceptionally flavorful and fruity take on the style, with a hop-forward nose that features a melange of hard-to-place tropical and citrus notes, along with some herbal character. The hops are nicely complemented by a nicely dry, roasty malt profile with light coffee flavors and firm, medium-strength bitterness. It’s a well-balanced black IPA that incorporates some hop flavors we didn’t see in too many of the other entrants in a fresh, complex way, while still holding on to a bit of malt complexity as well.
1. Stone Enjoy By 05.04.16 Black IPA
City: Escondido, CA
The verdict: It’s a little mind-blowing for me to think that this is actually the highest-ABV beer in the entire tasting, because it certainly doesn’t seem like it would be. Like most hopheads, we’ve enjoyed Stone’s regular Enjoy By IPA ever since its first release, but it was a pleasant surprise to try this beer and come to a realization: Enjoy By Black may have surpassed its original inspiration.
This offering is seriously hoppy, which gives it perhaps the best overall nose on any of the beers in the tasting. A plethora of fruit notes explode from the glass—tropical fruit in particular, but also a delightful stone fruit character that reminded some tasters of apricot. It’s admittedly lighter on the “black” side of the equation—dark brownish red in color, really, rather than true black—and this is reflected in the malt flavors, which are more like the stage for hops to dance upon. Search enough, though, and you’ll find just enough cocoa and nutty malt impressions on the back end that you would realize this wasn’t simply an IPA, drinking it blindfolded. It’s also remarkable how well that ABV is hidden. There were beers on the table in the 7% ABV range that tasted boozier than this 9.4% offering.
The nose on this beer is a beautiful thing—we may like this hop profile even more than the one in the original version of Enjoy By. It reminds us that in the end, “black IPA” is a style that each brewery essentially gets to define for itself—it’s malleable to the personal style of a brewmaster, and there’s no right answer. Whatever you want to call it, we’re happy to refer to it as our new favorite black IPA.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor. You can follow him on Twitter.