What connects the three beers we tasted this week is that they are all black ales of one sort or another.
Point Black Ale (5.2% ABV) was a pleasant surprise. Launching straight in without reading the blurb or doing any research which might prejudice our taste buds, we expected a rather mediocre British-style beer with veritable hops. Instead, we got an extremely convincing German-style Schwarzbier. (And Ratebeer concurs.)
Under a sandy-coloured head, a light but oily body offered caramel and notes of cocoa powder, made crisp by lager-level carbonation. By the end, as it warmed up, some suggestion of orange zest emerged, justifying the ‘ale’ tag somewhat, and adding a welcome layer of complexity. Ultimately, it’s an uncomplicated, satisfying and tasty beer, and our pleasure in drinking it perhaps highlights a gap in the UK market.
Next up were two black IPAs — a style about which we remain sceptical. We’re not offended by the name or the concept — we just don’t think that many of the beers sailing under that flag are anything other than either (a) IPAs with cosmetic Just For Men colouring or (b) stouts/porters/dark milds.
Otley Oxymoron (5.5%) has a name which references the issue many people have with the contradiction inherent in the term ‘black India pale ale’. The bottle label bears next to no information and the Otley ‘O’ logo is embossed in black, on black. Very stylish, but not much help to we poor consumers.
In the glass, it looked… black. What was interesting was the aroma: manure with a hint of bile.
Now, that doesn’t sound good, does it? But one of our favourite stouts is Harvey’s Imperial Russian which some find undrinkable because of it’s challenging ‘farmyard’ character, and Oxymoron might be its little sister — more sessionable but only slightly less mad. Beyond that, we detected an alluring hint of smokiness and a clanging grapefruit acid note. Much as we enjoyed it, we’re not sure the effect was deliberate, or that it is really an IPA in any meaningful sense.
Finally, there was Beavertown Black Betty (7.4%). We’ve drunk this beer several times, with pleasure, but with our brows furrowed. What makes it taste so distinctly London-y? And what is that elusive aroma we recognise but can’t name? This time, we think we managed to answer that second question: tobacco. Not posh pipe tobacco or cigars, but the slightly sweet, autumnal, dusty whiff of student roll-up baccy. There is also something savoury and wholesome — sunflower seed rye bread with caraway baking in the oven — in both the aroma and flavour.
Complex and interesting, then, and exhibiting a distinctive brewery character. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but beers that aren’t to everyone’s taste are what we’d like to see more of.
It is also a fairly convincing argument for the existence of black IPA — both stout and hoppy pale ale at the same time, depending on which angle you approach it from.
We bought the bottle of Black Betty ourselves from Ales by Mail (330ml at £2.30). Point Black Ale was supplied to us by Beer52.com as part of a sample of their beer subscription service; Otley Oxymoron came from a selection case sent to us by Eebria. For what it’s worth, Eebria’s selection seemed thoughtful and well-chosen, while Beer52′s did little to excite us.