Black IPA: the gateway drug to “real” dark beers?

Thunder shook loose hail and hammered the kitchen window like a million drummers. A scream: “Oh God, please, no!” as a punning oxymoronic headline began to take shape in my head. Oxymoronic could only mean one more black IPA on its way from bottle to glass. I started to think: “There really is only one way to cook aubergine.”

Actually, there are plenty of ways to prepare aubergines, but they mostly give rise to aversions to aubergine. And so it used to be with dark beers.


A black IPA or merely a black Ale?

Things have changed. Aubergines have been with us for a while, but a few years ago, when it came to dark beers, there used to be just stout, by which I mean The Black Stuff. Some people swore by it. Others swore at it. This gave rise to a lot of aversions to dark beers.

Before, there were other dark beer styles others, but they were as good as lost, at least in the UK. This was a pity. I remember an aunt or a grandparent having a Mackeson, but I never tasted a dark mild until I was 30. Porter? A mythical beast to me until I met Carnegie Porter in Sweden in the 90s. Schwartzbier? Merely a legend in the The Beer Hunter.

Black from the dead

Then America re-invented dark beers: From Alaska to Boston via San Francisco emerged black lagers, stouts, imperial stouts, porters, smoked porters, gonzo imperial porters… Recently, somebody (probably an American) invented the black IPA. Beer drinkers everywhere (well, a few places) spent hours contemplating how to resolve the paradox of “black” and “Pale”.

It’s simple really. As Phil Lowry (beer writer, homebrewer) puts it: “black” (dark malts) plus “IPA” (strong, hoppy). For these newcomers, brewers use different, speciality malts not normally found in Britain and Ireland’s dark beers. Malts such as used in German schwartzbiers (black lagers) provide the darkness but without the bitter, roasted, coffee flavours you get in stouts and porters.

What is the point? you might ask. Conventional black and chocolate malts for stouts, milds and porters rarely amount to much more than 15% of the total malt bill (otherwise there’s not enough sugar to ferment). They are intensely bitter like the bitterest 100% chocolate or the meanest double-shot espresso.

Black IPAs then, use speciality malts also used for black and dark lagers. These malts provide the colour, but with a restrained roasted bitterness, which allows the hop aromas and flavours to shine, while still showing off some velvety mouth feel and subtle dark chocolate, faintly smoky flavours.

These new(ish) beers with their new dark malts tend to made with tropical fruity, citrussy, and piney Pacific and American hop varieties. It’s a particularly good marriage, and it means black IPAs go very well with barbecued meats and vegetables. Handy to know for Summer, no? They are satisfying as well as thirst-quenching, robust enough to stand up to strong sauces, rich foods, and the smoke. That makes them pretty worthwhile, don’t you think?

What was that about “gateway drug”, again?
There does seem to be irrational fear some people have who won’t drink dark beers, this Guinness aversion. Myths have grown up that are about “dark beers are more filling”. And the equally bonkers counter: “stouts have more iron”. Whatever you say, it seems some people just won’t do dark.

An imperial porter has all the things an espresso aficionado would go for: intense dark roasted and bitter flavours, tempered with Muscovado-like sweetness. Perhaps, if gently approached with these flavours reined in, in the form of say, a Thornbridge Raven. People (you?) might see the light in the dark.

That “one more black IPA” I poured during the ominous thunder was a new one from BrewDog, its Libertine Black Ale at 7% ABV. Maybe “black IPA” should just be called “black ale”, but where’s the fun in that? And yes, they are just as “real” as any other beer style. Anyway, BrewDog Libertine is luscious and velvety with a soaring guitar solo of Starburst-flavoured Simcoe hops over the top.

I couldn’t resist a sample as I was preparing a mixed grill of courgettes, portobello mushrooms, tomatoes and feta cheese. And of course, those aubergines made THE only way: sliced lengthways, painted with olive oil, dusted with hot-smoked paprika, and grilled until they get attractive golden, crispy patches. I call them Ubergines.

Well, at least I avoided the punning headline.

Some UK Black IPAs for you online
BrewDog Libertine Black Ale 7%, from the BrewDog shop
Windsor and Eton Conqueror 1075, 7.3% from the Beer Boutique
The Kernel Black IPA, 6.3% from Beeritz

Swedish Midsummer Night’s Dream of Beer

There are normally no murders in Sweden in midsummer, not even ones for Wallander to solve, but it is a time for beer. And even if there is no tradition for special midsummer brews, it is expected that beer is served with the midsummer lunch. I do wish we had a festival in the UK that had the same attitude.

Midsommar, to give it its Swedish name is probably the second most important holiday celebration in the calendar after Christmas. The celebration is midsummer night’s eve, a movable feast set to the Friday closest to the Summer solstice. It’s a day off work, although the official holiday is the Saturday: midsummer’s day. The Swedes are canny, celebrating events on the eve, allowing time for reflection/recovery on the actual day. Even Twelfth Night is called “Thirteenth Day Eve”.


Pickled herring, cheese, ice-cold “snaps” – and beer

The food for midsommar lunch makes beer the obvious choice: gravad lax, smoked salmon, pickled herring (sill) of various flavours from mustard to curry, crispbread with hard, salty cheese, dill potatoes… The other accompaniment is snaps (equivalent to the Germanic “Schnapps”). Vodka infused with herbs and spices, often caraway, and for the real deal, wormwood herb, for a mouth-puckering bitterness that would be a joy to any hophead.

And what beer style to choose? Dry lagers like Czech or German Pilsners are great: their sharp, dryness stands up to the strong flavours, and cuts through the oiliness. There are a good few Swedish craft breweries from which to choose: Nynäshamns Landsort Lager, Nils Oscar God Lager… Or perhaps cuckoo brewery Mohawk‘s oddly named Unfiltered Lager. A devious beer, starting out being brewed as a Vienna-style lager and finishing up hopped like an American pale ale.

You’ll be lucky to find any of those brews in the UK, but you might find an English beer that would be an even better match. Meantime Brewing‘s latest seasonal: Friesian Pilsener. Yes, I know, “Friesian” is not in the neighbourhood of Lewisham, but this does North German pilsener better than the beer it was inspired by. This is so staggeringly refreshing and brimful of dry herbal aromas (sage? rosemary?) from haywains full of German hops that it will make you think June was a complete washout. See? it works!

In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a magical juice painted on sleeping eyelids turns the dreamer into a lover of whatever living thing they first see on awakening. A few drops of some of these special pilsners and you’ll never look the same way at a herring again.

Link and suggestions
Meantime Brewing’s beer range. Scroll right down to see the Friesian Pilsener. Marks and Spencer did stock own-brand bottles of the previous Meantime seasonal. Maybe they will this. You might try their London Lager, but it’s quite a different beast.

Pilsner Urquell and Jever are Czech and German pils(e)ners respectively, and more widely available.

If you have a beer pairing suggestion that is widely available in the UK, do let me know.