Back to black

Lily Waite tracks the ‘return’ of black IPA, and asks if it ever really went away


Andy Parker is commonly regarded as the nicest man in craft beer. To some, that’s an official title—The Nicest Man In Craft Beer—whereas to others, it’s just an accurate nickname. Good nature aside, as an ardent homebrewer-turned pro, Parker is the founder and head brewer of Berkshire’s Elusive Brewing. He’s also the man behind the hashtag #BIPAComeback, a passionate campaign for the return of the Black IPA.

If you’re a beer drinker and a user of social media—be that Twitter, Instagram, or even Facebook—there’s a strong likelihood that you’ve seen #BIPAComeback somewhere. An ask and an answer, a call and response, the hashtag is used as both rallying cry and exultant support. Somewhere between a niche meme and an earnest campaign, ‘#BIPAComeback’ accompanies what feels like most mentions, examples, or announcements of a Black IPA. 

Cascadian Dark Black India Pale Ale

As a style, the Black IPA (also known as the BIPA) is an intriguing one. It’s one commonly labelled as somewhat of an oxymoron—how can an IPA, a style that is characteristically light (perhaps until recently) and reasonably bright, be black?

As with many newer, boundary-blurring styles, the history of Black IPA is unclear. Some beer historians make a case for the Cascadian Dark Ale (named by Oregonian beer writer Abram Goldman-Armstrong, an early progenitor of the style, for the region of Cascadia, North-West USA), originating with late Vermont brewer Greg Noonan in the ‘90s, whereas others attribute the invention to Rogue Ales in Portland, Oregon, or to Phillips Brewing in British Columbia. The list of possible originators goes on.

At some point, Cascadian Dark Ale led to Black IPA, although, in essence, the latter is merely a hoppier version of the former—an IPA brewed with some darker malts in the mash to give the colour of a Porter, and hopped with Northwest American hops such as Cascade—and the two names are commonly interchangeable. 

American interest in the style bloomed in the mid-2000s, which in turn influenced a select few brewers in the UK, such as pioneering Oakham Ales. “Hawse Buckler,” writes ex-BrewWharf brewer and current hop merchant Phil Lowry on Twitter, in conversation with Parker, “was likely the first black and hoppy beer that was in the black IPA journey.”

Parker came across the style in 2011, at the time the style was starting to really gain traction in the UK. “2011 was my first experience of them I think,” he recalls. “At the time I was learning about hops by drinking Kernel's Pales and this gave an introduction to the style.” Then a keen blogger, Parker wrote about The Kernel’s collaboration with beer writer Glyn Roberts, which also happened to be the brewery’s first foray into the style.

“I think Military Intelligence [Phil Lowry’s Black IPA] and the Kernel BIPA were the first two in the UK, certainly they were in London,” says Roberts. “The closest anyone had got before then was a hopped-up Porter, which some people still insist BIPAs are anyway.”

Beers such as The Kernel’s, Thornbridge Brewing’s Raven (and then Wild Raven), and Magic Rock Brewing’s Magic 8 Ball were influential in bolstering the style’s popularity. 

“I think the first one I had was from The Kernel which is still one of the best,” says prolific homebrewer and beer blogger Kat Sewell. “Tempest did a great one called In The Dark We Live, and Buxton have done some great ones over the years including an imperial version called Battle Horse. Obviously can't talk about Black IPAs without mentioning Elusive's Shadow of the Beast and Andy Parker, captain of the #BIPAComeBack.” 

The Black IPA’s moment in the spotlight was somewhat short-lived, however: with the craft beer boom in its early stages and paler hoppy beer’s popularity increasing and intensifying, the darker, slightly more obscure branch of the IPA family tree began to fall by the wayside.

“The UK BIPA 'boom' lasted about a year I think,” says Roberts. “Soon everyone was doing them but very few were doing them well."

The huge increase in demand for hoppy pales and IPAs, evidenced by the rapid growth of New England IPA, the increase of prevalence of Double IPA, and the sharp rise and subsequent fall of Brut IPA—long may it rest in highly-attenuated peace—didn’t help the Black IPA’s cause. “I think there was a period where nobody was really making them anymore,” says Sewell, “or if they were, shops were not picking them up, choosing to stock NEIPAs instead.”

There’s a Cascadian Dark Ale on the Rise

“I really love the balance they can have. It's an art form to perfectly lay the aromatics and flavours of hops against dark malts,” explains Parker. “I particularly like the Black IPAs that show some of that roasted malt flavour but in a smooth, non-astringent way. I never really saw the point of brewing something pale and simply 'painting' it black for visual effect. The enjoyment in the style, for me, is using both aspects really well.”

As a result of Parker’s love, Elusive Brewing’s Shadow of the Beast was first brewed in the summer of 2016, not long after the brewery opened. It was launched with an ‘accidental limited release’, as he ran out of bottles whilst packaging, but since then, it’s gone on to win numerous awards. 

“Shadow of the Beast has remained in our range since our start in 2016,” says Parker. “It's not our fastest seller by any stretch but we'll brew it 2-3 times per year. Some of our wholesalers definitely avoid it though—perhaps bearing the scars of how the style rapidly went out of fashion a few years ago!”

I think to begin with it was needed to get the message out there that we want them

Unperturbed by this, however, Parker has become Black IPA’s greatest champion. His hashtag campaign, started in 2017 after a conversation on Twitter reminiscent of Magic Rock’s Magic 8 Ball, has since grown into a way for fans of the style to encourage its brewing, draw attention to it, and celebrate all things BIPA.

“I think to begin with it was needed to get the message out there that we want them,” says Sewell. “I use it to support the style—I'd like to see more of them and if using the hashtag to show that support helps, then why not?” 

“It's been fun watching it grow and I love being tagged into tweets about Black IPAs from all over, or finding and retweeting them myself,” says Parker. “Keeping that BIPA dream alive!”

Amongst Parker, Roberts, and Sewell, there’s a general consensus that Black IPA has, indeed, made a return. Though it’s yet to knock New England IPA from its turbid throne, the style has indeed seen some resurgence, and Parker can, at the very least, take some credit for that.

“It's certainly had something of a comeback,” explains Parker. “I've no idea how much of a factor the twitter campaign has been in that but if folk keep talking about them, it gives brewers confidence to brew them and retailers confidence to stock them.”

As Parker says, the more visible support and appreciation for a style there is, the greater confidence brewers will have in taking a punt on a slightly less-loved style, and Roberts agrees: “Black IPAs will always have their noisy detractors, so campaigns like #BIPAComeback will definitely help.”

“I've definitely seen on social media that more breweries are making them,” Sewell continues, “but they still don't seem to be making it into the shops near me, so it hasn't quite made a full comeback yet. There's still work to do!”

Whether the Black IPA will make a triumphant return to its heyday of 2011, or be overlooked as haze consumes us all, it’ll always have a home in one particular corner of the internet, with the jubilant fanfare of Parker et al, a charming hashtag, and, presumably, bucketloads of Cascade.

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