I read the other day that Phillips Black Toque is now one of the beers considered to be the originator(s) of the “Cascadian Dark Ale” style, or “India Dark” or “Black IPA” or whatever floats your boat. The name isn’t important. I have always liked this beer, and knew there were few others like it. Rogue was apparently in on this one, too. When other, larger brewers got in on the act and a stack of smaller breweries joined suit, talk began of a new “style” in the beer world.
I don’t want to take anything away from Phillips or Rogue, as I like those particular products and in general like a lot of beer from those breweries. But most beer styles do not materialize out of nowhere. Here’s an illustration.
I had the other day a remarkable product from the Raven Ridge Cidery of Kelowna, BC. This was d’Anjou Pear, which I am pretty sure is the only iced perry in the world. That uniqueness does not mean that iced perry was developing in a vacuum. Raven Ridge has been an ice cider specialist since 2002, the first (and maybe still only) such specialist about of Quebec. Ice cider originated in the 1990s in La Belle Province. The first ice cider producer, Face Cachée de la Pomme, took inspiration from the icewines that put the Ontario wine industry on the map. What the Ontario winemakers did was to basically produce to a higher standard of quality and consistency a product that has existed for eons in Europe. In other words, d’Anjou Pear may be an entirely unique product but it is the result of an evolutionary process dating back goodness knows how many decades.
I was meditating on why Black Toque didn’t seem to me at the time like a landmark product. It came out in 2003 or 2004, so my first exposure would have been in 2005. I realized that it was similar to another product I’d had back in 2003, Corporal Punishment from Scotch Irish Brewing in Ontario. That one was described as “Bitter Brown Ale”. So using “bitter” instead of “India” to describe the hop level and “brown” instead of “dark” to describe the colour. Aside from being of regular strength rather than IPA strength, Corporal Punishment had the same profile melding dark malts with big hoppiness.
Corporal Punishment was a similar brew – albeit hoppier – to what was once described in homebrew circles as American Brown Ale. The word “American” was used to denote the extra hops, the same terminology as was used to separate Pale Ale by hop level at the same time in those same circles. I remember specifically a beer called Blue Ridge Hopfest Brown Ale, which appears to have now been discontinued. This is a relatively bitter, dry-hopped brown ale.
Hopfest itself didn’t come out of nowhere. I don’t know about today, but in the mid-1990s American Brown was certainly a widely recognized beer style among homebrewers. At some point in the 80s or even 70s, homebrewers were throwing extra hosp into their Newcastle or Sam Smith Nut Brown clones to sex them up a bit. Thirty years of evolution later we now have a style that people wish to give a new name to. It isn’t the style that we started out with. There is no guarantee that today’s examples will be anything more relevant in ten years than Blue Ridge Hopfest is today. The point is that it is very rare that an innovative idea comes entirely out of nowhere. There is precedent and there is evolution. When that evolution runs its course, we are left with a product that has found the right niche in the marketplace. Sooner or later, as we beer geeks and especially us beer style theorists know, a name will become commonplace. I have long sought to rid Ratebeer of geographic style names except where absolutely necessary (e.g. Berliner Weisse), because geographic style names run counter to the prevailing trend of globalization in craft beer style. So despite being a proud Cascadian, we probably won’t use that name on the site. Does that mean India Dark Ale the best name? Maybe. But maybe we’ll let the industry sort this one out.
However it shakes out, just know that this type of beer is delicious and it is coming for a brewpub near you.
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