Recently, I read a very interesting blog post entitled “The Growing Irrelevance of Beer Styles”. Some would argue that this blog post should be filed with the various blog posts that would have been variously titles “Are There Now Too Many Craft Breweries in the U.S., Given That We Have … 2,000 … 2,500  …  3,000  … 4,000 … 5,000 ‘Breweries’ (with each blog post updated every few years to change the number of breweries that the blog poster has used to prove that there are definitely NOW too many craft breweries).

This blog post used the beer style that often triggers these conversations as an example the Black IPA. How can something be ‘black’ and ‘pale’ at the same time? Today, we are going to look at the idea of beer styles, see are they relevant, and should the idea of beer styles be updated in some way.

To lubricate the conversation, we will be tasting two delicious Dark/Black IPAs – In The Dark We Live from Tempest Brewing Company, and Glug M Glug from Black Sheep Brewery

Beer Styles 

Beer Styles have become all the more complicated as brewers have become all the more creative. The basic idea of a beer style is to give people information as to what to expect from a beer – either for a brewer, so that she/he has guidelines as to what to brew, or to a beer drinker so that he/she has guidelines as to what to drink. There are two key perspectives that drive us beer geeks when it comes to beer styles – the history of the style, and the characteristics of the style.

Beer History is a source of many debates on Twitter. The reality is that confirming exact information about a beer style is difficult for many reasons all beers brewed to a beer style are not identical, so we have to allow for variation here; the information that we have from history is often less precise than we would like (try reading a recipe or description of a beer in Olde English sometime! J); it is not unusual for information available to be contradictory; and beer styles ‘drift’ over time as tastes, brewing process and the brewing environment changes. The results is that the same ‘fact’ can be true at one point in history, and ‘inaccurate’ at another point.

This leaves characteristics of the style – and again, this can be subject to debate, as style guidelines become subject to interpretation. Style guidelines are not absolute, and try to allow for brewers to be creative. Trying to balance being ‘definitive ‘to give solid foundations for a style with being ‘accommodating’ to allow for different interpretations of a style to be included, while avoiding style overlaps is a virtually impossible task.

Where do I stand? My feeling is that the primary purpose of styles should be to help people understand what beers they are likely to enjoy most.  All people have different tastes, and styles can be a crutch to help us direct people towards a beer that might best suit their tastes. The history of a style is important in this respect – there is something special about tasting a beer that has evolved and developed over many centuries. The flavour of a beer is possibly more important. But most important is that beer drinkers should be able to talk to their bartender or beer retailer, and ask that beer retailer to direct them towards a beer to suit their taste. As I travel to other countries, the assistance that you can get from a beer server to be directed towards a beer that is a wonderful new taste experience is often wonderful. The training that these expert ‘Beer Consultants’ undertake is an invaluable dimension in helping people find their ‘perfect beer’. Beer styles are an integral foundation to this training to help beer experts both organise information in their heads, and communicate with beer drinkers to direct them towards an amazing taste experience.

In The Dark We Live


Beer Style: Black IPA
Alcohol by Volume: 7.2% a.b.v.
Brewed by: Tempest Brewing Company
Brewed in: Scottish Borders, Scotland.

In The Dark We Live presents with a distinctly red-black colour – black as it sits on the table, with reddish hues when the beer is held up to light – and a light tan coloured head that is well-formed on the pour, and lasts well in the glass. Bringing the glass up to the nose, the immediate aromas that come through are delicious roast malty notes of chocolate and cocoa that is complemented with a white pepper spice, jammy character.

The hop flavour comes through on the flavour in the mouth. Bright soft fruit flavours (winter berry flavours or strawberry jam and apricot) sit on top of background dark malt character (chocolate, roast flavours) that combine with a marshmallow and biscuit sweetness. The balance in this beer is immaculate – 50 IBUs of bitterness provide just enough to both balance the sweet fruit and marshmallow character, while also allowing the dark malt and subtle spice to complement and layer the balance in the beer. As an image for comparison, this beer has many of the elements present in a ‘tea cake’  – marshmallow and jam sweetness with a biscuit base combined with chocolate.

In style terms, In The Dark We Live provides the hop character that one would expect from an IPA, but complements this with the dark malt character that is essential to a Black IPA. The balance is superb – hop bitterness and roast malt character present in just the right combination to ensure superb drinkability in the beer, with a layer of background white pepper spiciness to add a further dimension to the bitterness. These flavours balance the different dimensions of sweetness that are present in the beer – marshmallow, biscuit and fruit sweetness. The critical element that is important in style terms for this beer is the question as to whether it deserves its own style category of Black IPA, or should it be ‘lumped’ as a Porter or a Stout. While the distinction is subtle – Porter/Stout should land on the malt side of the equation, while Black IPA should be more reliant on hops for character – on balance I would feel that the malt character in In The Dark We Live is most definitely there is a complementary character adding a new dimension to the beer, rather than as the fundamental foundation flavour of the beer. The other dimensions of hop flavour in the beer provide their own dimensions of flavour that define this beer’s character, and so it would be hard to argue that this beer should be classified as a Porter or a Stout instead of a Black IPA.  From this perspective, having this ‘disputed’ style does give that little bit more information to help understand the specific character to expect from this beer.

All in all, it is an excellent example of the Black IPA style, but is also a superbly balanced beer. This second point on balance is important – some brewers of Black IPA insist on highlighting the hop flavour in the beer so much that the bitterness is high, the hop flavour is extremely punchy, and the result is a beer that is heavily emphasizing hop character, but in danger of being out of balance and less drinkable as a result.

Of course, if you are not overly concerned with beer styles, suffice it to say that this beer is a delicious combination of jammy, marshmallow and biscuit sweetness balanced with just enough bitterness, roast malt and chocolate character with a further layer of subtle white pepper spice. What more could you need?

Glug M’ Glug

Beer Style: Black IPA
Alcohol by Volume: 6.2% a.b.v.
Brewed by: Black Sheep Brewery
Brewed in: Masham, Yorkshire, England.

When is ‘pale’ pale? When it comes to beer, the answer should be obvious.  Surely golden beers are pale beers, and stouts are dark beers. True, that is the two ends of the scale of ‘normal’ beer colours, but there are many variations and gradations in between.  When does a beer become dark enough that it is not pale any more, and when does it become dark enough that it is now a ‘dark’ beer. Again, the answer should be simple, but the reality is that it depends on who you are talking to, and where they are coming from. We will come back to this, as Glug m’ Glug is a beer that illustrates this issue perfectly.

Glug ‘m Glug presents as a dark amber, approaching light red-brown colour (more on this below). Aromas of Glug ‘m Glug combine dark Christmas pudding fruits with brown sugar – white currants, cherries, apricot, soft stone fruit, more subdued character of darker fruits and a touch of lemon and orange zest. This beer is interestingly ‘bright’ in its flavour, despite its ‘dark’ moniker. The fruit flavours lighten and brighten the flavour in the beer. Malt character in the beer is slightly sweet, and balanced with a soft level of bitterness. Ironically, with this beer while the softness of the malt character would be the first factor that might preclude this beer from being classified as an English Porter, the reduced level of hop bitterness (so often central to an IPA) would be a further dimension that would nudge this beer away from the possibility of being a porter. The delicious hop flavour pushes it distinctly under the ‘Dark IPA’ style.

Back to colour. The reality is a beer lover’s definition of pale is dependent on time. If a person is committed to beer history, they will consider anything from quite dark amber (what we might consider to be dark enough to be a red ale or light brown ale) to be ‘pale’. The reality is that a couple of centuries ago, dark beers were distinctly dark ‘brown to brown/black’ and ‘pale’ beers were anything lighter than this. The level of sophistication in malting processes meant that many malts were darker than the distinctly pale malts that allow for the brewing of golden beers nowadays. Over time, golden beers have become more prevalent, and there has been a need to distinguish between different gradations of pale ‘golden’ versus ‘amber’ versus ‘dark amber’. The result of this is that BJCP (one of the ‘guardians’ of style definitions) have split what would have been called ‘pale’ beers in 2008, into ‘pale’ (meaning ‘gold’ to dark ‘gold’) and “amber”. What is the relevance of this? Glug ‘m Glug could be argued to be a ‘pale’ beer by historic standards (albeit, a pale beer on the darker end of the scale), and would be considered to be a “dark” beer by modern standards – could this be the beer that justifies the style “Dark IPA”?