Black IPA: Booming a few years ago, only to recede ever-so-slightly when Saison usurped it at the head of every brewer’s experimentation list. I’m not mocking here at all – it’s had genuinely been a while since I’d tried a really good Black IPA – and then recently, as happens, a few landed in my lap. I do like the style, to be honest, and when done well the balance between dark grain and bitter hop can be a mesmerising one; either cancelling each other out in harmonious fashion or seemingly amplifying the effects of both.
First up, Salopian Vertigo (7.2% abv); a beer I was very much looking forward to tasting after experiencing such ephiphany with Darwin’s Origin a few months back. What stands out for me the most is the unexpected in Vertigo; the sugary, fruity notes in the nose that remind me of a cut strawberry, the undertow of sticky pine reminding you there’s hops in those woods. A body of Licqourice and molasses follows, with rising bitterness at the end of the sip that manages to wrap its arms around both the citrsussy cut of Orange Peel and the drying bitterness of espresso coffee and roasted malt. It’s another home run from Salopian all right; not all about hops and in excellent condition too.
Buxton’s Imperial Black IPA (7.5%abv) is a whisker stronger in terms of alcohol and yet feels like a bruiser compared to Vertigo, swaggering into the ring and delivering a knockout blow to a promising young fighter, just to remind him who’s boss. It’s a much more straight-ahead beer, too – but no less wonderful for it; deep, biscuit-and-bread roasted malt in the body, laced with bitter chocolate and boiled sweets. The finish is another stroll in that pine forest, put-your-head-in-the-hopsack deal; sticky, green and – when fresh, as I’ve had the pleasure of tasting this – incredibly vibrant. Another quality beer from the boys from Buxton.
Beavertown’s Black Betty (7.4%abv) again illustrates how a beer with a similar abv can feel so different; it’s much lighter in mouthfeel than the Imperial Black IPA. Tasty and moreish, it’s sweet and silky in the body, slightly oily (in a good way) and with a more ‘woodshop’ aroma than the usual coffee – which does appear, although in a muted fashion. There’s pine, of course – that seems to the theme for this tasting – alongside a big citrus punch at the finish. It doesn’t dry out the palate, and you’d probably want more than one; which I often find to be the acid test for Black IPA’s.
Finally, we have a beer that was sent to me earlier in the month; one of collaboration. Hackney’s Sebright Arms have been working with Redchurch Brewery and local artist Pure Evil to create, well, Pure Evil Black IPA. Coming in at 8% abv, its the strongest of the lot and it shows; it’s big and incredibly bitter – perhaps a little too bitter for me, to be honest. The aroma, however, is pungent and fresh with grassy, minty, herbal hops, with an undertow of Parma Violets in amongst that roasted, flapjacky (is that a word?) malt that’s not unpleasant at all. That Parma Violet note pops up again in the sip, before being obliterated by an espresso rasp and high, rising bitterness.
Like you BIPA’s big and bitter? This is your man – although it’s a one-off, I’m afraid. Still, I like the spirit in which the beer was born, which is the main reason I accepted a sample. The Sebright appears to be building a community around it through beer and food, and that brings a smile to my face.
It’s always a pleasure to drink beers from a brewery who are comfortable in their own skin; brewing beers that appeal to everyone, without bells or whistles. Flavour, you feel, is king in Shropshire. Salopian have been around for some time now (they appeared in 1995) and produce a range of beers that have never let me down; they are often the first name I look for when attending beer festivals. These two bottles are no example to that rule.
Shropshire Gold is one I’m familiar with; a zippy golden ale with masses of lime and lemon rind on the finish and a body of smooth sweetness. The beer is clean, refreshing and everything you want in a light (3.8% abv) session ale. It holds its own against other personal favourites in this style such as Hopback’s Summer Lightning, Ossett’s Yorkshire Blonde and Hawkshead’s Lakeland Gold.
Darwin’s Origin is – frankly – brilliant. Very much a ‘cult’ beer – in so much as that not a lot of people talk about it, yet everyone seems to rate it – it has endless capacity to surprise. Weighing in at only 4.3% abv, it manages to pull off that trick that Oakham do so well – brewing lighter beers that are jam-packed with flavour.
Darwin does it all with grace; copper-coloured and full of sweet fruit on the nose – Seville orange marmalade , mango, strawberry. After marveling at the aroma for a while, you finally taste it and are immediately rewarded with light, shortcake sweetness which transforms mid-gulp into high, dry grapefruit and pine needle at the end.
I should have got more of these, I rue. An entirely modern beer wrapped in a plaintive, traditional jacket, you wonder if Darwin’s Origin is being overlooked by those seeking more modernity from their branding and ethos. More fool them. If you’ve not tried this beer, then rectify that immediately.
Both beers are available at Best of British Beer – whose details are on my ‘retailers’ page.