beer reviews bottled beer

Tasting: Black Ales and IPAs

Point Black Ale

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

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.

Beavertown Black Betty.

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 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.

beer reviews Somerset

General brilliance, specific problems

Moor Illusion black IPA

By Bailey

My little brother lives in Bristol, a city increasingly awash with interesting beer. Though he’s teetotal, he’s geek enough by nature to have absorbed a certain amount of knowledge about beer from us and from friends, which is why, when he saw a selection of bottles from Moor in a butcher’s shop, an alarm bell rang and he decided to grab one of each available as a Christmas gift for me. (At considerable expense, I gather.)

On opening the package, I beamed. Just as with Butcombe, I can’t help feeling warm towards a brewery from the Shire; and we’ve generally found Moor’s beers to be exciting and interesting, if not always consistent.

Merlin’s Magic (4.7%), a super-hoppy ‘take’ on best bitter, saw me through the helping-Mum-get-things-down-from-high-shelves, pre-dinner milling about phase of Christmas Day. It had zing beyond zing, cutting through the effects of a morning nibbling chocolate with lemon-rind, herbal dryness. As the extended family turned up, everyone insisted on a taste. “Too bitter!” they all said, before layers of complexity hit them and their eyebrows rose upward. “Ooh… nice though.”

Illusion (4.7%) came towards the end of the meal, before desert. It still doesn’t help explain how black IPA is distinct from other types of beer (a hoppy porter, in this case, I think) but did march confidently over duck fat, gravy and English mustard. More zing. Fireworks, in fact. My beer-hating Auntie liked it, too, much to everyone’s amazement. I wanted several more.

Finally, however, a dud: Moor Amoor (also 4.7%, I think, though the website disagrees). A murky, reddish brown rather than the black I’d been expecting from the word porter on the label, its smell was really offputting: I Couldn’t Believe It Wasn’t Butter. Though there was something nutty to enjoy in the taste, overall, I’d rather, honestly, have had a can of Bass or bottle of Guinness. Quality control problems?

At any rate, from our perspective, that last beer is the answer to this question from Simon Johnson:

Or, indeed, to a similar question we asked ourselves back in 2008, when we were only little, and enjoyed an earlier iteration of Amoor under the name Peat Porter.

Beer styles real ale

Black IPA: too subtle for us

On Saturday, we drank Cornish brewery Coastal’s black IPA and enjoyed it but found ourselves, once again, scratching our heads in bafflement: it was yet another black IPA that might have been sold to us as porter or stout without controversy. Sure, it had evident citrusy hops which we might have made note of, though we wouldn’t have ‘marked it down’ as not being ‘true to style’.

People keep trying to explain the distinction to us:

  • black IPA should be black but not roasty — it’s a different ‘black’ flavour than stout
  • if you can’t taste any difference from ‘normal’ IPA, then the blackness is superficial.

This is a level of subtlety which, at the moment, is just beyond us, especially as the water is muddied by hoppy porters (complete with roastiness) bearing the black IPA label. (Failed attempts, as we understand it, as measured against an emerging set of rules surrounding the style.)

Maybe we need to try making one ourself to really understand this other ‘black flavour’?

Or, actually, maybe ‘black’ alone is enough of a style descriptor to cover everything from dark mild to black IPA, via porter and stout? After all, even beers just dyed black with caramel taste darker to us, because our brains and palates are wired to our eyes and are easily fooled.

This isn’t a moan about black IPA being oxymoronic, by the way, because we’re over that and everyone’s bored of hearing it/refuting it.