Cascadian Dark Ale / Black IPA: Rule-Breaking Innovation

Style Profile by | Feb 2011 | Issue #49

Inspiration finds its way into the brew kettle in many a way. Sometimes through the grain bill, sometimes during the boil. And sometimes through the idle conversation of two home brewers happily working on their latest creation, as was the case in 2007 when a Portland, Ore., beer writer named Abram Goldman-Armstrong and his friend, Bill Wood, brewed a dark ale inspired by Phillips Brewing’s Black Toque.

The Canadian-brewed ale—arguably the first of its type to be bottled and widely distributed—was dark and hoppy like a Porter. But you really couldn’t call it that because it lacked the style’s traditional heavier body. If you closed your eyes, you might think it was a basic IPA. But, of course, this new beer shared none of the British style’s grand history and, worse, “Black India Pale Ale” was a clunky oxymoron.

Here was a brand, a new style of beer—a classic example of rule-breaking innovation. And it didn’t have a name. What should they call it? The two brewers joked that they better come up with something before San Diego’s brewers (who were then claiming Double IPAs as their own) co-opted the emerging style.

It was Wood, Goldman-Armstrong recalls, who suggested—perhaps in a bit of tongue-in-cheek parochialism—Cascadian Dark Ale. “Looking back,” Goldman-Armstrong said, “it just made a lot of sense.”

Fearing that, as a growing number of brewers turned to the style, other ungainly names might catch on, Goldman-Armstrong sprung into action. At first, it was friendly arm-twisting, urging regional brewers he knew through his work as a festival organizer to adopt the new name. Several quickly did, and beer fans latched on, partly because other names just sounded ridiculous. Portland-based beer writer Lisa Morrison noted, for example, that “India Dark Ale” would inevitably be shortened to IDA and just confuse bartenders. “CDA is a great bar call,” she said.

In early 2010, Goldman-Armstrong organized a CDA symposium in which brewers and beer writers tasted, discussed and finally built a consensus on the style’s characteristics. For one thing, they agreed, a CDA must be something more than a simple IPA that happens to be black. A brewer can achieve the color without added body simply by cold-steeping dark grains or—as in some dark lagers—with de-husked black malt, neither of which provide adequate roasted character, they said.

And for another, CDA must be brewed with the Northwest’s distinctively aromatic hops, including Amarillo, Centennial, Chinook and, yes, Cascade. This wasn’t just a matter of local pride. When the resins of Northwestern hops mesh with the roasted malts, said some brewers, they tend to produce an almost minty or rosemary quality—a quality that is missing when the ale is made with British Fuggles or East Kent Goldings.

“It’s a very different beer,” Goldman-Armstrong said when I asked him if he could taste the difference between an IPA and a CDA with his eyes closed. “If you have any palate at all, you should recognize it’s a different beer from standard India Pale Ale.”

Goldman-Armstrong drew up some style guidelines and submitted them to the Beer Judge Certification Program (which hasn’t acted on them, yet). The Brewers Association reviewed them, too, and created a new category at last year’s Great American Beer Festival… without calling it CDA. Instead, the style was confusingly labeled “American-Style India Black Ale.” Early this year, the BA changed the name to “American-Style Black Ale.”

ASBA? Whatever. As Goldman-Armstrong noted, even if the BA hasn’t officially adopted the name, the notoriously fussy federal Tax and Trade Bureau has, authorizing its use on bottle labels. Chalk one up for inspired homebrewers.

Aroma: Citrus, pine, resinous hops and hints of roasted malt.
Flavor: Citrus and spicy hop flavor with light-bodied roasted malt flavor.
IBU: 40–90
ABV: 6–7.5 percent
Examples: Stone Sublimely Self-Righteous, Victory Yakima Glory, Southern Tier Iniquity21st Amendment Back in Black, Boulder Flashback, Widmer W’10 Pitch Black IPA, Cigar City Either, Deschutes Hop in the Dark, Rogue Black Brutal, Laughing Dog Dogzilla, Sockeye Double Gnarly Imperial Black IPA, Hopworks Urban Brewery Secession Cascadian Dark Ale