An interplay between light and dark. Robust, roasty, full bodied malt with fruity, hoppy highlights. The best of both the dark and pale ales?
Well, that’s the theory at least. In truth, I often find beers sold as “black IPAs” mixed and muddled, the flavours often not playing nicely with each other. The bitter hops and roasted black malty base often bringing the worst out of each other. The result can sometimes e a flavour that could best be described as “burnt”, or at the other extreme resembling a liquorice all-sort – candy-sweet and artificial.
And, the name. “Black India Pale Ale”. A black pale ale? Hmmm…
However, when this style first began to be brewed on America’s West Coast it was given the name “Cascadian Dark Ale”, after the mountain range so dominant in the Pacific North West and a variety of hops that bears the same name. That style name also appears at the top of another striking, simple label from Epic Brewing Company, the brewery’s name standing out in bold white on a black label on the black bottle of the ‘Apocalypse I.P.A.’. “Black India Ale” appears towards the bottom of the label; Epic hedging their bets here, while acknowledging that putting the word “pale” on a beer that’s black as the night is probably a silly thing to do.
This is now Apocalypse’s third return since it was first brewed in 2009, and its tasting better than ever. Because, as with most other beers he brews, Apocalypse shows that Luke Nicholas really is a master of the art of getting the balance right between hops and malt. Amongst a field of muddy, too-sweet or burnt-tasting black IPAs, Apocalypse stands head and shoulders above, the interplay between the light and dark, between the hops and the malt, being done perfectly.
There’s so much potential for things to go wrong when you’re planning on highly hopping a strong dark malty ale. So, what Epic does with the Apocalypse is a side step – this may be the lightest tasting black ale around! Through some mastery of the dark arts of brewing, Luke’s created an ale that is black as the devil’s soul, but in the mouth reveals itself to be light and bouncy.
At first it’s a bit unexpected to find such a dark ale hitting the tongue with almost the consistency of a creamy golden ale, but it quickly becomes apparent that this lightness is vital for the huge, delicious play of hop flavours that swirl around the palate. Bittersweet orange, Satsuma mandarin, a delicious fruity combination of citrus that fades to a slightly bitter, lingering note of refreshing fruit with just a hint of lightly roasted coffee.
Perhaps most surprising, and most exciting, is how non-sweet this beer is; an absence of thick treacly notes really allows the big bitter fruit and light coffee flavours to really bring out the best in each other.
Many ales that focus on strong aromatic hop flavours throw a lot of thick sweet malt into the brew, bringing a sweet balance to the bitterness, as well as a booziness that helps lift the hop aromas. But with Apocalypse the dark malt is playing a different role, bringing a solidity and roasted-coffee bitterness, and that base gives the hops another platform to demonstrate their wares without a cloying sweetness.
Orange rind mixed with dark chocolate, bittersweet hints of ginger and aniseed, all just lurking around the edges of the predominant bitter, clear, citrus fruit flavours.
This perhaps might be the hoppiest black ale I’ve tried. I’m certain it’s the lightest (tasting) black ale I’ve tried. It’s something quite special; almost a contradiction, but really just a revelation of hop flavours presented in a way that’s refreshingly different and surprising.