Dark Shadows: Uncovering Black IPA

You can’t always trust your eyes. Creative chefs and modernist mixologists know this. And now so too do brave brewmasters.

When Bryan Hermannsson and Patrick Horn moved their home-brewing operation to a garage in an industrial area of San Francisco, they knew they would be experimenting, which is why they chose to call their company the Pacific Brewing Laboratory. But rather than just experimenting with hop varietals, yeast strands and types of grain, they wanted to play with drinker’s perceptions of what beer styles are. For their first commercial release they created the Squid Ink, an ink black (squid ink, if you will) IPA. It doesn’t look anything like its traditional namesake, but it is just that. An IPA.

“We eat and drink with our eyes,” says Horn. You would expect such a dark beer to taste rather stout-like: rich, creamy, malty, roasted. Knowing, however, that it is an IPA, you might even expect it taste more bitter. But stronger, either way. “Because darker always equals stronger?” asks Horn, raising his eyebrows with a slight smirk at the common misconception.

And of course, Squid Ink does have some toasty character thanks to the addition of dark roasted malt and barley, but its body and flavor is more akin to a traditional American IPA. Weighing in at 54 IBUs (International Bitterness Units), it is less hoppy than many West Coast IPAs which have been known to soar past 80 IBUs. Rather than tasting like dark chocolate, roasted coffee and caramel, which is what you would expect from a porter or a stout, the Squid Ink is surprisingly light and even refreshing. The secret ingredient here is Sinimar, a German product derived from cold soaking de-husked roasted malt, that adds color without contributing any flavor or aroma. Bottles of Sinimar basically look like motor oil.

Their mind-game has also won them something else that is highly valued in a West Coast market saturated with craft brews: differentiation. To our knowledge, the 21st Amendment’s Back in Black is the only other black IPA being made in the Bay Area. And, at 65 IBUs, with considerably more roasted barley character, it actually is as strong as you would expect, ending up much closer to a porter. Guess sometimes stereotypes are true.