Most beer styles are steeped in hundreds of years of history, but “black IPA” is a distinctly American, distinctly contradictory, uniquely divisive exception to multiple rules. Since becoming widespread in American craft beer at the end of the 2000s, it has engendered a lot of debates, including arguments over the legitimacy of the style and plenty of disagreement over what it should be called—see our new Let’s Talk Beer Styles: Black IPA feature for more information on the history and modern role of the style.
But suffice to say, people have some strong feelings about black IPAs, and their role in the beer community is nebulous. They don’t tend to be anyone’s favorite style, and many brewery owners will express a certain resentment for the fact that even the best examples don’t sell particularly well. Just look no further than Stone as an example—they made the very well-regarded Sublimely Self-Righteous from 2007 onward, and that was a damn fine black IPA. And yet, the brewery ended up discontinuing it last year, presumably to focus on the new black version of Enjoy By IPA—a savvy way of connecting a new black IPA to a Stone brand (Enjoy By) that has already proven quite popular. Sensible move, but presumably not one that would be made if Sublimely Self-Righteous was the #1 seller.
What, then, actually makes for a great black IPA? That, like so many other aspects of craft beer, is a matter of taste. Some are looking for beers that emphasize the “black” in the name, albeit with an added shot of American hops. Others are looking for hop bombs that could probably pass for regular IPAs if you were tasting with a blindfold on. Still others, ourselves included, are looking for a hard-to-achieve balance between delicate roast and expressive American hop character. The ideal black IPA, tasted blind should be obviously an American black IPA—not a porter or stout with hops, and not an IPA with a touch of color. It’s all about the synthesis.
Here, then, are 21 black IPAs, blind-tasted and ranked.
A Note on Black IPA Acquisition
Putting together a large field of black IPAs proved significantly more difficult than we were anticipating this time around. Perhaps this speaks to the fickle nature of the style, or the fact that there’s no defined “season” for black IPAs—breweries put them out in the summer, in the winter, and every season in between. Many of those are seasonal or otherwise limited releases, which imposes a limit on us. Perhaps it also indicates that black IPA, as a style, has already sailed well past its zenith and is now receding.
Regardless, something we couldn’t help but notice is that the samples we were able to put together came from a very strong crop of breweries. There aren’t many year-round black IPAs out there, but many of the ones we received are from breweries that are near and dear to our hearts, including the likes of Firestone Walker, Maine Beer Co. and Ohio’s The Brew Kettle. I don’t think we’ve ever had so many great breweries represented in so small a field.
Rules and Procedure
- We accepted anything sent to us, as long as it involved “black IPA” or “India” in the description. Some of them, like Dogfish Head’s Indian Brown ale, were essentially pioneers of this style before the black IPA term even existed, so yeah—they get a pass.
- There was a limit of two black IPAs per brewery, which was totally unnecessary. The beers were separated into daily blind tastings that approximated a sample size of the entire field.
- Choosing an ABV limit was difficult, as this style tends to ignore distinctions between “IPA” and “DIPA.” Firestone Walker’s Wookey Jack, for instance, is regarded as a prototypical American example of black IPA, and it’s 8.3% ABV—easily in DIPA territory. Could we really accept that one and not one at 9% ABV? Ultimately we just accepted them all.
- Tasters included professional beer writers, brewery owners and beer reps. Awesome, style-appropriate glassware is from Spiegelau.
- Beers were judged completely blind by how enjoyable they were as individual experiences and given scores of 1-100, which were then averaged. Entries were judged by how much we enjoyed them for whatever reason.
In most of the recent tastings, we’ve only ranked the top portion of the results, simply listing the rest of the entries alphabetically in “The Field,” totally unranked. However, with this smaller sample size, coupled with the fact that we enjoyed pretty much all of these beers, we decided to rank the entire group. We’re sorry that someone has to end up in the lowest position, but that’s the nature of the beast. It doesn’t mean they’re bad beers—just that they potentially got overlooked.
City: Ipswich, MA
The verdict: There really aren’t that many year-round black IPAs on the market, so I knew we couldn’t miss this longstanding one from Clown Shoes. Unfortunately, the bottles we were able to find in our area weren’t exactly the freshest, and that showed in the final product, as it didn’t have the punch we usually associate with Clown Shoes IPAs. Noticeable oxidation and time had cut down on the hops somewhat, also imparting a bit of mustiness to a malt body that comes off more nutty than outright roasty. Search hard enough and you can also uncover some tropical fruit notes, but this one simply felt like it had been sitting under the fluorescent lights a little bit too long.
City: Minneapolis, MN
The verdict: We’ve quite liked some of the beers from Minneapolis’ Indeed Brewing Co., including the pale ale Day Tripper, which performed well in our recent pale ale blind tasting, but the brewery’s black IPA seemed less well-balanced than the previous example. Most tasters primarily noted the roast and a touch of dark chocolate flavors, but at the expense of most of the hop character. What does come through is mostly hop-derived bitterness, which combines with the roast to create a dry, ashy flavor profile that you do see in a lot of American black IPAs these days. Most of our tasters, on the other hand, are hoping for either more expressive American hop flavors or a slightly higher level of residual sugar to counteract the dual bitterness of dark malt and alpha acid-derived bitterness. This is still perfectly drinkable, but the best examples of the style are more vivacious.
City: San Leandro, CA
The verdict: We’re honestly surprised to see that this one reaches 6.8% ABV, because it drinks much lighter. Very mellow, especially in comparison to some of the other behemoth black IPAs that were on the table during each day of tastings, it suffered a bit in comparison simply because it was more restrained. It’s significantly thinner of body than most, with a good balance of light, coffee-like roast and classically piney American hops—a profile that we saw in a lot of these individual black IPAs, which made it harder for that subset to stand out. If you amplified this one a bit, the ranking might go higher.
City: Buellton, CA
The verdict: This beer is pretty close to a template of what “black IPA” has come to mean in the American craft beer market—it hits the style definition right in the center of the bullseye, albeit perhaps with a bit more malt than some of the other examples. Cocoa powder and bitter dark chocolate edge it toward an American stout-like profile, but there’s also some pleasantly resinous pine notes on the palate as well. In execution, it’s really rather similar to the beer that precedes it on this list, but simply with a mouthfeel that is a bit fuller, despite being slightly lower in ABV. In truth, there were quite a few black IPAs that fit more or less into this sort of profile, but our favorites tended to be the ones that either did something unexpected or simply found a way of presenting these flavors in a way that was simultaneously more assertive but still balanced.
City: Salt Lake City, UT
The verdict: There were definitely a few big boys in the tasting, and Dubhe has the assertiveness of an imperial black IPA. The hops do announce themselves this time, with a burst of clean citrus in particular, counterbalanced by dried fruit, raisin-like maltiness, caramel and a wave of roast that turns slightly acrid. To quote one score sheet: “Yum. Grassy and citrus hops hit you quick, then roast. Huge body.” That pretty much says it all. It’s hard to say if we overall enjoyed the higher or lower ABV examples of this style more—it’s perhaps more accurate to say that our favorite examples of black IPA were equally likely to be anywhere from 6-10% ABV.
City: Gary, IN
The verdict: We have no idea why this black IPA is simply named “Seven,” but we unabashedly love the funky, blaxploitation-themed can. This offering stood out among others in its day’s tasting for some really beautiful malt flavors in particular—there’s a firm roastiness and a touch of smoke and possibly anise-like licorice that is rich and characterful without being acrid or bitter. What doesn’t show up as strongly is the hops, which are perceived more through the tactile sensation of bitterness than on the nose or the palate. As is, in a completely blind tasting we would probably be more likely to categorize this beer as an American stout than a true black IPA. But for lovers of clean, roasty flavors it’s one to seek out.
City: Clifton Park, NY
The verdict: The name implies this beer’s story, brewed by Shmaltz (the makers of the He’Brew line of Jewish-themed beers) to celebrate the transition into their own brewery after a long 17 years of contract brewing. The black IPA they chose to celebrate the occasion is well-balanced and appreciably complex, if not particularly assertive. Piney and especially floral hops are what most of the tasters detected here, supported by gently nutty malt without much in the way of true roast—more American brown ale in character than stout-like. Bready and nutty on the palate, with more floral hops, it’s a slightly reserved but well-executed spin on the style that tactfully finds a balance between hops and malt.
City: Sawyer, MI
The verdict: Anger is a year-round offering from southern Michigan brewery Greenbush, which has stealthily built a solid reputation for itself as an up-and-comer, only a short drive from the breweries of Chicago. It is likewise a solid example of black IPA—a bit lighter of body than some of the others on the table despite a 7.6% ABV, with a very ripe grapefruit citrus nose, chased by pine sap. Light cocoa maltiness is present, and medium level of bitterness that falls right in the middle of the examples we tasted. It’s not the flashiest beer on the table, but the balance is there and it’s sessionable enough that drinkers might actually reach for more than one, which is more than a lot of these black IPAs could say.
City: Victor, ID
The verdict: This beer has been around for going on 6 years now, and I remember it being one of a few examples that helped establish my own expectations of the style back in 2010, along with Avery’s New World Porter. Tasting it blind against this lineup, it doesn’t quite pack the hop punch I remember, but tasters enjoyed it nevertheless. Rather, it’s the malt that shines with complexity—classic base malt flavors of bread and more toasted impressions of nuts and baking cocoa adding richness and moderate residual sweetness, which is probably amplified a bit by the higher ABV. Hops are piney, woodsy and reflective of the pine woods you find in the region. It would probably make a great accompaniment to a pan-seared trout like the one on the label.
City: Bloomington, IN
The verdict: Upland is an interesting brewery, with a sour program in particular that is not afraid to take risks. Some of those work out, and some don’t—we never know quite what we’re going to get from these guys. The Komodo Dragonfly makes use of a unique ingredient in lavender flowers, but this time the novelty is for a very subtle effect, creating an x-factor of earthiness and subtle floral tones that nicely complement its fruit-forward hops. Subtle in general, with lower bitterness than most of the other examples, it takes a little digging to really get at the flavors. The “black” portion doesn’t come through quite as strongly as in most of these other black IPAs, meaning this might be a more suitable option for those who like a less robust roast presence in the style. This too would likely be a very food-friendly black IPA thanks to the lack of scorching roast or hop-derived bitterness.
City: Stratford, CT
The verdict: There’s a lot of things going on here at once, in a beer that punches somewhere above its weight class. Two Roads’ offering is very clean, with distinct malt and hop flavors that you can note one at a time. Citrus and floral hops pleasantly make their presence felt in both the flavor department and via moderate-to-high bitterness. Malt presence runs the gamut from lighter nuttiness to deeper, darker, more bitter chocolate, and there’s even a bit of dark fruitiness in there as well. It’s hard to say if it’s more a dark beer with hop presence or an IPA with darker malt, but that debate is what we like to see in this style. From this point on, all of the beers are pretty excellent.
Next: The top 10 black IPAs!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.