It goes without saying (but we’ll say it anyway) that IPAs are the top craft beer style among consumers. The proof is in the data. Untappd’s Year in Beer for 2023 reveals that consumers checked-in IPAs nearly thirty-two million times—almost twenty-four million check-ins more than the second-most checked-in category in stout. And that’s coming after a year in 2022 when IPAs ranked in the top four checked-in styles for Untappd users. Consumers love American, hazy, West Coast-style, and double IPAs, triple IPAs, and even cold IPAs. But what about black IPAs?
Since this one goes a little against the grain compared to the traditional take on the hop-forward beer, we chatted with three makers of top-rated black IPAs including Firestone Walker Brewing Company, Burnt Mill Brewery, and Foothills Brewing about top considerations, ideal grist, and whether black IPAs still have some traction in the market.
(Above photography courtesy of Firestone Walker Brewing Company)
What We’ll Cover in This Piece:
Better Production and Enable More Sales With Ollie
Discover how breweries all over are making operations a breeze and enabling more sales with Ollie!
Ready to learn more? Drop us a line and our team will be in touch with more information on how to check out a demo of Ollie.
How Do the Experts Define Black IPA?
Firestone Brewmaster Matt Brynildson says that most brewers would agree that a black IPA needs to resemble a schwarzbier in color and, true to a black lager, should not bring any roasty or chocolate character, nor should it be sweet or rich like a stout.
“This isn’t a hoppy porter or stout; it’s an IPA with a dark brown to black hue,” says Brynildson. “The hops need to be the main show, just like any IPA. Bitterness should be firm and the finish clean enough to beg another pull.”
Burnt Mill Head Brewer Sophie de Ronde says a black IPA, sometimes also known as a Cascadian dark ale, is just a black version of a West Coast IPA.
“So a clean and crisp beer with citrus-, pine-, resinous-type hops work really well in this style,” de Ronde says.
Foothills Sales and Marketing Director Bill Manley says this style is a bit of a head-scratcher since they are India pale ales—emphasis on the pale.
“There are two schools of thought when designing black IPAs—the first follows the German schwarzbier model—dark in color, but no real roasted malt flavor,” Manley says. “The second school of thought follows the early American idea of making something akin to a very hoppy porter—some roasted malt flavor, a fuller body, but still a heavy citrusy hop character that leads the dance.”
Manley adds, “Personally, I like a little bit of the roasted malt flavor to shine through, and that’s what we do here at Foothills Brewing.”
Is the Black IPA Market Still Strong?
De Ronde doesn’t feel it is a style that has legs at this point.
“As a one-off special, every now and then is great,” she says. “But the number of people who regularly drink the style seems quite low.”
Manley says it is more complicated.
“Black IPAs had a huge moment in the sun in about 2008 to 2013 and then sort of fizzled out for a while,” he says. “Now there are a handful of producers making them again—or still, in our case—and we see a good amount of success with [Foothills black IPA] Frostbite each winter.”
Manley adds, “Right now, the beer market is difficult all around. There isn’t one singular trend driving the market, but brewers are finding small wins with individual brands and styles across the spectrum.”
But Manley maintains that the style is underrated and can work depending on time and place.
“It is one of those things that line up perfectly for the [winter] season,” he says. “It’s easy enough to drink that you can have one or two, but it’s got enough oomph and presence that it still feels special and timely and with a great seasonal connection.”
Brynildson admits that the black IPA isn’t likely to become any brewery’s flagship beer anytime soon but says there are still fans of the style bellying up to the bar to drink it.
“We find that this beer works best into our seasonal lineup,” Brynildson says. “And brewing it once a year for a short time keeps the interest piqued and satisfies our love for brewing the style.”
What Are the Top Considerations for Black IPA?
Brynildson stresses not overdoing the specialty malt and remaining focused on making a great IPA.
“It just happens to be dark in color and not so dark in flavor,” he says.
Brynildson says that most brewers know about using dehusked or debittered dark roasted grains to get the color you want in the beer without the roasty, chocolate, or coffee notes. But having brewed their Wookey Jack for over fifteen years, Brynildson has a few tricks up his sleeve.
“There are also debittered, roasted barley-derived liquid color products that can help to get the job done without adding specialty malt flavors,” he says. “I really like incorporating roasted wheat—like Briess Midnight wheat—into these recipes.”
Brynildson adds, “Our signature twist to black IPA is rye malt. I feel it adds some complexity that fits well with the style but doesn’t weigh the beer down.”
Manley notes that because you are using dark malts, there has to be balance.
“You want the hops to be the star, but you also want the malt to have an impact,” Manley says. “The trick is to impart malt flavor and color, but to avoid harsh smoky or astringent flavors that can come from heavily roasted grains like black barley or black patent malt.”
He adds, “Keep in the front of your mind during recipe creation that you’re brewing an IPA, not a porter with fruity hops, and you’ll be fine.”
At Burnt Mill, de Ronde says to be mindful that you are concocting an alternative take on a West Coast-style IPA.
“Classic and punchy West Coast-style hops are great to overcome the dark malt additions in the style,” de Ronde says. “So, really ramp up those piney and resinous characteristics.”
De Ronde adds that the key is to get that color into the beer without the flavor, reiterating what Brynildson noted about dehusked black malts to reduce astringency in the beer.
“Topping the mash with a black malt prior to sparging and using black malt extracts are great ways to get color into the wort without too much roasted flavor or astringency,” de Ronde adds.
What Are the Challenges of Brewing Black IPA?
According to de Ronde, getting the hop flavors to shine through is a challenge when creating this style.
“There is always going to be an element of dark malt characters in this style of beer,” de Ronde says. “Hop choices are important. There is no point in using those softer, more subtle hops as they will just get lost.”
Manley went back to achieving balance.
“Be sure your debittered dark malts aren’t too strong of a flavor in your grist. Too much roast ruins a black IPA to me,” he says. “Balance the inherently roasted flavors on highly kilned malt with the fruitiness from the hops.”
Brynildson says there shouldn’t be any significant challenges but cautions brewers to give a black IPA the time it needs to finish—at Firestone, Brynildson says he brews to package after about two weeks for his taste.
“I have tasted black IPAs that are under-attenuated and thus sweet and unbalanced, so building a beer that ferments well and has an IPA drinkability is key,” he says. “Getting overly zealous with specialty malts should be avoided. Less is more in these beers. The grain bill should look more like your schwarz and not your porter.”
What Is an Ideal Grist for a Black IPA?
Brynildson says that Wookey Jack has a base of pale malt and rye, which accounts for eighty-seven to ninety percent of the grain bill.
“The kilned malts—pearled roasted grains—are about ten to thirteen percent of the total grist bill, and we like a blend of Midnight Wheat from Briess and De-husked Carafa III from Weyermann,” Brynildson says. “We will utilize dextrose to dial in the fermentability of the wort as needed.”
Manley says they just utilize typical base malt and add caramel malts and some sort of debittered dark malt. He also suggests going with lower temperature in a regular infusion mash.
“Given our grist and brewhouse, 148° Fahrenheit works great for us,” Manley says.
De Ronde says using a dehusked black malt is ideal in a black IPA.
“I tend to add a touch of Crystal malt as well to enhance the color and balance the malt flavors,” de Ronde says. “If you can also get hold of black malt extracts, these go a long way towards coloring without too much flavor.”
For mashing, she says they go high, at about sixty-eight degrees Celsius.
“It suits the malt we use and our kit,” de Ronde says, reiterating throwing dehusked black malts on top of the mash before sparging for color without the flavor.
How Many Hops Should Be in a Black IPA?
When Firestone created Wookey Jack, Brynildson says they used the biggest, stickiest, and most intense hops they could get their hands on—Simcoe, Citra, and Amarillo. At the time, that caused them to take a hit from IPA fans because they perceived their IPAs as a little too balanced and restrained, Brynildson notes.
“So we took this opportunity to let it rip and create a big, bold hop attack,” Brynildson says.
Firestone puts hop additions in the kettle of about a half pound per barrel.
“But we also add a bittering charge of CTZ CO2 extract to make sure we are above seventy measured IBUs,” Brynildson says. “In the whirlpool, we add about three-quarters of a pound per barrel. The dry hop is only two-and-a-half pounds per barrel—which was massive in 2007—but being that it is dry hopped two times with Citra and Amarillo, the finished beer comes across as assertively dry hopped.”
De Ronde suggests adding slightly more hops to your dry hop to punch through the dark malt profile. She says for Burnt Mill’s Cascadian Rhythm black IPA, they dry hopped fourteen-and-a-half grams per liter compared to the typical thirteen grams per liter in their traditional IPAs.
Burnt Mill adds four grams per liter at about eighty-five to ninety degrees Celsius for their whirlpool addition.
“Any higher than that, we start to lose too much wort in our runoffs,” de Ronde says. “We also add FLEX® for bittering. Bitterness, however, is perceived, and I don’t like to state IBUs as our calculated IBU to actual IBU is going to be different, and it also changes over time.”
Referencing Frostbite, Manley says they use hops on the hot and cold side.
“On the hot side, we go heavy towards the back end of the brew cycle,” he says. “On the cold side, we dry hop after fermentation and the diacetyl rest are complete. We land a shade over two pounds per barrel between hot and cold hop additions.”
Three Examples of a Great Black IPA
For Firestone, their primary black IPA is Wookey Jack, which Brynildson says the brewery “put the most love into.”
It is 8.3% ABV and has about sixty-five IBUs. Brynildson adds that Firestone Walker Propagator R&D Brewhouse Manager and Brewer Sam Tierney produced a cold IPA in the style of a black IPA called Arctic Wookey. It’s a reimagined take on Wookey Jack, with Citra and Strata hops in the kettle and dry hop.
“That turned out very nicely as well,” Brynildson says.
De Ronde says Cascadian Rhythm, a 6.4% ABV beer with pale malt, rye, and dark malts, was a “cracking beer” for Burnt Mill, utilizing all the techniques she referenced.
“It gave us a beer with a low and gentle roasted character that punched piney hop flavors,” she says.
Manley notes the Frostbite is “our pride and joy in that style.” The 6.2% ABV beer with 74 IBUs was almost retired by Foothills, but the brewery decided to keep it going.
As Manley says, “It’s just got all the right balance—sweet, bitter, roasty, bright, dry—in all the right components.”