The American Beer Style You Haven't Heard Of


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After thousands of years of brewing, it's not every day that someone comes up with a new beer style. But in the last few years, West Coast craft brewers have been churning out what looks like a porter but tastes like a sweet India Pale Ale. Everyone loves it. In its debut as a category at this year's Great American Beer Festival, it garnered 53 entries; only 15 of the 79 categories had more—and those were mostly stalwarts like blonde ale and barleywine.

The problem is, no one can decide what to call it.

According to the Brewers Association, which runs the festival, it's the American-Style India Black Ale. By their definition, it is a dark, moderately bitter beer that balances its high hops content with caramel and roasted malt flavors. Imagine a porter and an IPA combined in such a way that their opposing characteristics—one sweet and rich, the other sharp and bitter—complemented each other, bringing out new flavors like ginger, mint, and rosemary.

The real story is that the Pacific Northwest has long been the home of quality craft brewing in this country, and locals want something to show for it.

Not everyone is happy with the name, though. The style is particularly popular in the Pacific Northwest, where breweries like Deschutes and Widmer Brothers have made it a central part of their lineup. Many in the region prefer to call it Cascadia Dark Ale, a nod to its frequent use of Cascade hops as well as the fictional land of "Cascadia," which runs along the Pacific Coast from Oregon into Canada.

Proponents of "CDA" have brevity on their side: American-Style India Black Ale doesn't exactly roll off the tongue—or the mind, given that there's no "British-Style India Black Ale" from which to distinguish it. And, they say, other names, like simply "India Black Ale" or "India Dark Ale"—IBA or IDA, respectively—could be confusing. "Imagine the poor bartender at a busy, noisy pub trying to determine if you just ordered an IPA or an IBA or IDA," writes beer blogger Lisa Morrison.

But these are superficial arguments; the real story is that the Pacific Northwest has long been the home of quality craft brewing in this country, and locals want something to show for it. The CDA name, argues beer scribe Ezra Johnson-Greenough, is a "tribute" to the region's legacy. (* See footnote below.)

This would make sense if anyone outside Cascadia thought of it as a distinctly regional style. But they don't. On the East Coast, where the style has yet to take off, the only brand most of us know is Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale, from Stone, located in San Diego. Sublimely Self-Righteous won third place in the category at the festival, and it's been around since 2007—long before most of the ones coming out of Northwestern breweries. Then there's KK, a black ale rolling out from Pretty Things, in Westport, Massachusetts, this fall. It's a clone of a beer brewed in England—in 1901.

And while the Great American Beer Festival only added the style to the roster this year, black ales were popular among crew pubs in the 1990s, including Blackwatch, brewed in 1990 by the Vermont Pub and Brewery in Burlington. In the two decades since, it's a good bet that dozens of small-time craft brewmasters have produced dark, hoppy ales; they just didn't have the good sense to push an official name on it.

My own suggestion would be American Black Ale. Not only does it recognize the nationwide provenance of the style, but it would do away with the antiquated notion that anything with heavy hops needs to have "India" in the name. Hoppiness is a particularly American obsession. It's time beer appellations recognized that fact.

* To be fair, some beer writers, like Abram Goldman-Armstrong, argue that Cascadian Dark Ales are distinct from Black IPAs because of their reliance on Cascade hops.

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Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times, and is the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He has written for The New Republic, Smithsonian, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

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