Rule-breaking produces new brew
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 was arguably the first of its type to be bottled and widely distributed. It was dark and hoppy like a porter, but you really couldn't call it that because it lacked the style's traditional heavy 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, a "Black India Pale Ale" was a clunky oxymoron.
Here was a brand, 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 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 adopted the name, and beer fans latched on, partly because other names just sounded ridiculous. Portland 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, Cascades. 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, but now refers to it as "American-Style Black Ale."
Whatever. As Goldman-Armstrong noted, even if the B.A. hasn't officially adopted the name, the notoriously fussy federal Tax and Trade Bureau has, authorizing its use on bottle labels. That's led several breweries to adopt the name, and even the original from Phillips is now called Sckookum Cascadian Brown Ale.
Chalk one up for inspired home brewers.