In Defense of Language: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Black IPA

By Greg Koch

I’ve got a bone to pick; not a big one, and in the grand scheme I’ll own that it’s not even a terribly important one—certainly not enough to get ruffled about one way or the other—but definitely one that seems to continue to call for a bit of debate.

If you know anything about me, this should come as no surprise. You see, I’m kind of a stickler about names, and I can stay silent no longer. There’s been some controversy over what to call an IPA that is black. Hmmm…black IPA seems like a damn fine match if you ask me. But there are some who wish to confuse the issue by introducing other, more confusing names to the equation.

“American-style black ale?” Really, Brewers Association? Now, you know I love you, but what does that even mean?! Does using that silly name simply mean you didn’t want to take sides? And then there’s “Cascadian dark ale,” argued for by Matt Van Wyk in “Cascadian Dark Ale–A Rose By Any Other Name.” As I’m well-known for being on the “black IPA” side of the equation, I was asked to pen a rebuttal piece.

My Black IPA Thesis (to give this article a generous term)

First, I will suggest that the words India pale ale when written out, no longer have much of a relationship to the IPAs being brewed by craft brewers in the U.S. today, and many other places in the world.

As we all know, the style of India pale ale got its name as a reference to where it was being sent: India. From Britain, mostly, for the troops and the expats. It’s a style that is steeped in much history, and quite a bit of historical myth: *shameless plug* as Stone President and Brewmaster Steve Wagner and Co-Brewmaster Mitch Steele will reveal in their Brewers’ Publications-commissioned For the Love of Hops.

To insist upon the idea that the words “India” or “pale” in IPA have any modern-day relevance, is to ignore history and the passage of time. Language’s usage of certain words and terms can—and absolutely does—change over time. To wit, India pale ale is no longer being sent to India, nor is it always pale. (The historical usage of “pale” was a reference to a beer being “not dark brown or black.”)

It’s been well over 150 years since IPA had anything to do with India on any practical basis, and I would additionally argue the IPAs of 150 years ago have little to no connection to the IPAs of today. Modern malt and hop varieties used in an American IPA are radically different from those used in centuries past. So much so, that calling today’s IPAs a distant cousin to the historical version would get far more nods of agreement from today’s brewers rather than howls of protest.

Wait just a moment. Did you really just do that? Really? Did you just read the phrase “American IPA” and not skip a beat? Of course you did. You didn’t pay one iota of attention to the fact that “American India pale ale” is rather horribly misnamed. It makes no sense! But yet, of course it does. True that it’s “American” (brewed in America…although not necessarily these days), but it isn’t India-bound (possible, but not likely), and there’s a chance it’s not particularly pale, but you don’t mind the term or really even give it a second thought. And I don’t blame you. That’s because the letters “IPA” have become somewhat divorced over time from their historical ancestry.

The simple term IPA has connotations in American craft brewing today that are widely understood. You can use nearly any modifier with the word IPA. American IPA? Check. West-coast style IPA? Gotcha. Belgian double IPA? Sure, sounds tasty. Imperial Black IPA? I could definitely go for a tulip of that!

You see, language is ultimately about conveying ideas and understanding. Mention any of those phrases above, and any craft beer drinker knows exactly what you mean. Like it or not, IPA, imperial, and double are all words that are used in the common vernacular that are now divorced from the constraints of their original, more specific usage.

If you’re one of the stalwart holdouts that shouts in righteous indignation that “a beer cannot be both ‘black’ and ‘pale,’” then you’d better not let anyone catch you talking about your vintage beer collection in your cellar. If you do, you’re using the word wrong…we all know that ‘vintage’ refers only to wine, and it’s fairly unlikely you have an actual “cellar!” (Heck, mine’s just a spare fridge in my garage!) Of course, the usage, thus the definition of those words have changed over time.

CDA vs Black IPA

Other Possible Names and Why They Fail

  • American-style black ale / American black ale: To use this term would suggest that ‘American’ is a euphemism for ‘hoppy.’ It is, of course, not. Nor should it be, although I’d probably like the American-Style Wheat Beer category more if it was!
  • India black ale: The connection to India is, as I indicated above, 150+ years out of date. Thus, those focused on the idea that each word must make sense, and choose to substitute black for pale, lose out on the fact that the word India…doesn’t.
  • India dark ale: See: India Black Ale.
  • Cascadian dark ale: I guess I’ll have to let you decide that one for yourself. In talking with Abe Goldman-Armstrong, writer for Northwest Brewing News and one of the leading vocal proponents of the CDA name, I believe that it is not their intent for consumers to believe that the style originates from their region. However, that is indeed what many folks think is implied with the name. Unfortunately, while many of the names for the style are contentious, only one is contentious from a regional perspective. In the interest of not allowing us to draw lines in the sand in the normally very inclusive craft beer industry, I might humbly suggest that the usage of CDA be reconsidered.

It is important to note that a few years back, Garrett Oliver and a few beer writers suggested that double IPAs should be renamed “San Diego pale ale” due to the origins (some debate this) and intense regional popularity (no one debates this) and early support of the style in San Diego (or this).

While the nod was quite flattering, it ultimately wasn’t supported by Stone or many (any?) other San Diego breweries, as we didn’t feel it was appropriate to name the style after ourselves. And frankly, “San Diego pale ale” would not be immediately understood by beer enthusiasts, whereas “double IPA” most certainly is.

So, what does all this mean to me and what do I hope it means to you? That language is a curious animal, one that will always adapt and shift over time. And as loving drinkers of dark, hoppy beer, we should embrace the black IPA name. Why? Because it’s the only term that quickly and succinctly lets everyone know exactly what it means.

Black + IPA = Black IPA. Every time. It is what it is.


greg_bioGreg Koch is the CEO and Co-Founder of Stone Brewing Co. He is a certified (some might even say certifiable!) beer geek and a passionate crusader for ethical eating. For a steady supply of his musings, follow @StoneGreg on Twitter; he’s always more than happy to let you know what he thinks. Greg is the author of two new books; The Craft of Stone Brewing Co.: Liquid Lore, Epic Recipes, and Unabashed Arrogance and The Brewer’s Apprentice.