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‘Black and Bitter,’ — True Origins of Black IPA PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jack Curtin   
Thursday, 05 August 2010 17:00
When the Brewers Association added the style popularly known as Black IPA to the Great American Beer Festival guidelines for 2010 and officially designated it as American-style India Black Ale, brewers in Vermont breathed a sigh of relief.

They have been concerned for months that a campaign by individuals in the Pacific Northwest to have the style named Cascadian Dark Ale would deny credit to one of their own, legendary brewmaster Greg Noonan of Vermont Pub & Brewery in Burlington, who died of cancer last October.

“Greg wouldn’t much care about this for himself,” says his long-time friend and business partner Steven Polewacyk (they founded Vermont’s oldest craft brewery in 1988), “but I feel like I’m the caretaker of his legacy. We first brewed this ‘new style’ nearly 16 years ago and I think that deserves more recognition than just passing mention.”

Two other Vermont Brewers, John Kimmick, owner of the Alchemist Pub and Brewery in Waterbury, and Shaun Hill, owner of Hill Farmstead Brewery in Greensboro Bend, support Polewacyk’s position, each reporting conversations with Noonan in the months prior to his death in which he expressed dismay that others would lay claim to the style because “it was brewers in Vermont who first brewed this beer.”

Birth of Blackwatch

Recent articles in Zymurgy and Brew Your Own magazines embracing the concept of Cascadian Dark Ale further agitated the New Englanders. They cite this comment in an article in the latest issue of Brew Your Own magazine entitled “Birth of a New Style: Cascadian Dark Ale” as particularly infuriating: “Who brewed the first version of this style is a point of great debate. Some say Greg Noonan of Vermont brewed one in the early 90s, but this can’t be substantiated.”

In fact, there is a very clear and direct evidentiary trail from Vermont Pub & Brewery in 1994 to the release of Stone Brewing’s Sublimely Self Righteous Ale, generally considered the premiere example of the style, in 2007.

Brewing records provided by Polewacyk show that, on Dec. 4, 1994, Glenn Walter, then an assistant brewer under the auspices of Noonan, brewed the initial batch of Blackwatch IPA, a dark and hoppy interpretation of the style. Walter, who owns Three Needs Taproom & Brewery in Burlington, says that the beer was his recipe, brewed with Noonan’s approval and guidance. “I was going through a divorce at the time,” he recalls, “so I wanted to brew something that expressed what I was feeling and Greg gave me a relatively free hand. I got the idea from Bill Owens’ Alimony Ale bitterest beer in America).” The “black and bitter” slogan which appeared on the beer’s label perfectly expressed his feelings, Walter says.

Black IPA Lineage

Those same brewing records show that Blackwatch was brewed for a second time on Nov. 25, 1995 by Alchemist’s Kimmick, who was Walter’s successor. He remembers asking Noonan for a chance to do something new after brewing all the pub’s regular beers several times and being told “go through all the old recipes, find something you like and brew it.” From that point on, Blackwatch has been a standard item on the VPB menu and Kimmel says it was the inspiration for his El Jefe Black IPA, which he introduced at the Alchemist in 2003.

El Jefe, in turn, prompted Hill to create Darkside Black IPA for the Shed Restaurant & Brewery in Stowe a few years later. He has since created his own black IPA, James, at his brewery and he brewed Amager Nitro and Grassroots Broken Spoke Blackened IPA (the latter a contract beer which he owns) in Denmark while living and working overseas. Last November, he collaborated with a close friend of Noonan’s, Jean-Francois Gravel of Canada’s highly respected Dieu du Ciel! on Pioneer, an Imperial Black IPA tribute to Noonan released at Mondial de la bière in June.

Mitch Steele, head brewer of Stone Brewing Co., tasted Darkside at the Extreme Beer Fest in Boston in 2006 and says it was the inspiration for Sublimely Self Righteous Ale. Steele, who is writing a book on IPAs with Stone cofounder Steve Wagner for the Brewers Association, sums up the situation this way: “From all my research, it looks like Vermont Pub and Brewery was the first to brew what I call the American-style Dark IPA or India Black Ale. And if they were brewing these beers ten years before anybody in the Northwest was brewing them, they should be recognized for that. I’ve never tasted a black IPA from the Northwest until recently.”

Cascadian Connection

The primary advocate for the Cascadian name is Abram Goldman-Armstrong, described in the BYO piece as “a local beer writer and volunteer point man for promoting this new beer style.” He says he’s been writing about Cascadian Dark Ale for five years and tried to find out about the Vermont beers after hearing all the dissent but “could not find any records of their being brewed from searching on the internet and asking people I know from the East Coast.” He first approached the BA about CDA while judging at GABF last year. “I suggested the category be added, giving them very sketchy outline. I then organized a symposium in Portland in January which had 25 brewers and beer judges tasting and discussing 19 examples of the style to develop style specifications to send them.”

Those specs said that the style “incorporates dark malts and signature NW hop varieties” and “came to prominence on the Northwest Coast of North America in the early 21st Century…Northwest hops play key flavor roles, balanced with malt, roast malts give color and flavor, but body should be reminiscent of an IPA, not heavy like a porter or stout. The style celebrates the hops of Cascadia, the Pacific Northwest, but is commonly brewed in other regions.” They cited an IBU range of 60-90+. The official GABF style guidelines make no mention of Northwest hops or regional brewing and specify a bitterness of 50-70 IBUs (that first batch of Blackwatch came in at 100.7 IBUs, Polewacyk says).

The official style guidelines for American-style India Black Ale were derived from several submissions, including the one from Goldman-Armstrong. The BA’s Chris Swersey explained “in the past, certain beers were accepted for official guidelines which had a geographical reference as part of the name, but as more people brew the style in more locations, such identification becomes irrelevant so we don’t include it any longer.” When asked about the Vermont objection to the CDA name on the basis of the beer having been brewed there nearly a decade before it being done in the Pacific Northwest, he laughed and added, “Yes, that’s an even better argument.”

Goldman-Armstrong doesn’t sound quite ready to give up the battle. “We tried several examples of beers brewed with non-NW hop varieties at the symposium and didn’t really feel they fit into the category,” he says. “Pelican’s Bad Santa for instance, used all Goldings and Fuggles. A CDA by definition relies on varieties such as Amarillo, Simcoe, and Cascade to achieve an interplay of resinous, citrusy hop aromas and flavors and a hint of roast or other dark malt. Perhaps that is not the case with Black IPAs. In other words, there may be two different styles.”

Collective Unconscioius

The Zymurgy article gives somewhat more credit to VPB and Noonan than did the BYO one and mentions the more limited quality and style of malts available in the ‘90s, a point Kimmick seized upon to make a broad argument that both territorial claims and deciding a beer is a new style because it has changed “is preposterous. Look at Imperial Stouts now compared to what they were 15 years ago. With the introduction of the Carafa malts, you now get lush, rich chocolaty imperial stouts rather than the acrid ones you got when people were using just chocolate and black patent and roast barley. Are today’s versions a new style that somebody invented over the last decade because we use different malts? That’s silly. Also, we didn’t have the hops available today back then; there were no hybridized, high alpha, low cohumulone hops.

“Besides, new beer styles aren’t ‘created,’ they come out of the collective unconsciousness of the brewing world. You hear somebody did something differently or you try something new on your own. Things evolve. My goal with making the El Jefe, as much as I loved Blackwatch, was to brew something more to my taste. I’d tasted an Imperial Stout that my friend Todd Mott (Portsmouth Brewery, NH) made and was blown away. That turned me on to dehusked Carafa 3 and allowed me to up the ante, to make my version dryer and crisper and more of an IPA with a black color. But it still all started with Blackwatch.”

Let’s hoist a pint to that. Might I suggest a nice Vermontian Dark Ale?


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