The days are just packed. There’s a mixed-blessing over-abundance of wonderful beery stuff in my life at the moment; much of which I’d love to be writing about, but I’m finding — for the moment1 — it’s all jostled up in my brain and forming a bit of a tangle. This happens from time to time, I’ve found, and is attributable to various causes which range from the everyday to the idiosyncratic. Back when I was a bartender, ranting and raving, armed with a beer and a keyboard, in the middle of the night, it was easier to navigate — partially because it seems I really am a nocturnal person attempting (with various levels of success) to live a day-walking life. As much as I love it, and as much as off-the-cuff rambling (whether praise or condemnation) about beer flows as freely as exhaling, I have found myself in mildly-daunted bordering-on-freaking-out mode a few times,2 and thereby unusually quiet. Which doesn’t seem a very me thing to be at all, so enough of that. This online incarnation of my Diary actually started as a way to start my brain moving properly again — more about that, another day — so we’re hopefully back on a well-worn path.3
I met this beer last week, as we prepped for a Craft Beer College tasting (at which I was co-hosting — so, you know, disclosures) which included it as part of a run-down on the role of different malts in the making of craft beer.
Graham Graeme Mahy, the man behind 666 Brewing,4 is one of those insufficiently-sung (if not actually “unsung”) characters in the local industry, and his beers reputedly never last long on Hashigo’s taps. ‘Black Se7en’ leaps bodily down that numerological well that brewers seem so attracted to, referencing not just the Pitt-Freeman movie wherein Kevin Spacey is the bad guy and there’s a severed head in a FedEx box,5 but 7 hops, 7 malts, 7% ABV and 77 IBU. It’s a little belabored, especially when you learn that “666” itself is a similar nod to Mahy’s June 1966 birthday, but the resulting beer is unarguably worthy.
I neglected to make any notes or take a photo of the glass I had on the night (since I was, you know, working), so I resolved to swing by Hashigo on my way to work the next day — which did mean committing to a pre-noon beer for the sake of these ramblings; the things I do in the name of research and completeness. It’d been yanked off the taps to clear the way for a Fresh Hop Friday tap takeover, but evidently I wasn’t alone in thinking it worth re-visiting, as Sam & Dave had emptied the line into a jug rather than down the drain. And — generally speaking, whatever the time of day — I do love a Black IPA, both as a consumable liquid and as an intellectual exercise. Beer styles are useful things, but reifying them and pretending they have any kind of actual independent existence and/or any real stability over time is just madness and likely to turn you into some kind of pedantic trainspotting anorak — and, worse, diminish your enjoyment of tasty things. “Black IPA” is almost singularly capable of doing some peoples’ heads in — and this is the one that finally got to me, with all its aggravating deliciousness.
Aggravating because this really does make a nonsense of the idea of a Black IPA. There’s a lot6 to be said / pondered / argued about the style (such as it is); what it should be called, what its defining characters are — and whether it exists at all, or deserves to. I’m perfectly happy with a world that contains both Hoppy Porter and Black IPA, and I’ve recently been convinced that “Cascadian Dark Ale” isn’t as daft a term as I initially thought. I like the Scrabble Bag Full Of Adjectives approach to beer style naming wherein brewers seem comfortable just throwing terms together in novel ways that are nonetheless capable of economically communicating their intent. Meanings evolve, concepts are recombined, and nothing is carved in stone. Beer is like that partially because language is like that.7 So I think there can be Hoppy Porter which isn’t Black IPA, and vice versa; I’d see it as a matter of emphasis, and starting point — which element you’re tweaking, which is your curveball adjective and which is your foundational noun. But ‘Black Se7en’ isn’t like that, it’s merely-black IPA, with a shameful lower-case b.
That’s because Black Se7en is apparently brewed with a surprisingly-contemptible product from Weyermann (a German malting company, and one of the world’s giant beer-ingredient providers) called “Sinamar®”. A dark roasted-malt extract, its sole reason for existing is to impart colour without a traceable hint of flavour. Brewers have some clever tricks for minimising the extract of roasty flavours from malt — like throwing it in the mash tun at the last minute as the wort is run off — but this just seems like a bridge too far. That it touts the avoidance of additive-listing regulations and compliance with the (god-damn motherfucking) Reinheitsgebot as advantages betrays the pointless sneakiness of it as mere food colouring. Why not release a whole freakin’ rainbow of Se7ens — what was the point of the blackness? Or is it some kind of very-devious post-modern meta-level commentary on the state of the “style”?
If you’re reading this, I’ve probably ruined your chance to run a fair test, but if you can put a glass in front of someone without telling them how it’s made, it’d be fascinating to see what they make of it, and whether they report any flavour notes that you’d expect from darker malts. They shouldn’t, given the design, but I couldn’t help second-guessing what the hell was going on in my brain as I drank it. Perception is like that, of course, but the interestingness of the exercise couldn’t quite soothe my outrage at the thought of all that effort going to jump through hoops for mere colour and compliance with a “Purity Law” for which there exist no sufficiently-large scare-quotes. It put me in mind of all the engineering effort poured in to making modern life, and particularly its gadgets, fit within ludicrously-strict readings of religious rules about the Sabbath. There’s a lot to admire in the ingenuity, and a certain charm in the mindset, but it just seems like a tragic misapplication of cleverness.
The beer’s damn good, though. And that calmed me right down.
Original notes: 666 Black Se7en IPA 3/5/13 @ Hashigo, on my way to work. Had this for a CBC tasting last night, and it’s motivatingly interesting + delicious. Actual, literal Black IPA, in instructive ways. Some influence of the gdmfing RHGB. (7%, leftovers for Fresh Hop Friday.) So weird that this should be so worthy but philosophically annoying-but-fascinating. It’s gorgeous, IPA-aromatic, satisfyingly bitter, too-drinkable for 7% (especially at breakfast!), balanced + damn good. But… but… Why black? Why?
1: Where “the moment” = the last few months, admittedly. Let’s go with deep time. ↑
2: Particularly, I’ll freely admit for the sake of brain-clearing, with the editorship of The Pursuit of Hoppiness, which I inherited when Kate Jordan moved over to the Melb.. It’s a damn fine publication, and I’m excited to have a crack at it, but it’s been an oddly-intimidating thing to tackle, given its pedigree, its profile, and the fact that a whole bunch of people pour work into it. I’m very much accustomed to working on my own, in the dark. The transition’s proving tricky, but I’ll get there. (He says, as he hacks out a personal blog post for the sake of greasing the rusted cogs of his mind — and if you can’t air a mea culpa and a minor confessional in the footnotes of your own website, what the hell is the point of having one?) ↑
3: An apt metaphor, since my other brain-cranking trick mostly involves hopping on my bike and going for a blat around some of Wellington’s many bays and up and over a few of its equally-many hills. The cycling-fanatic and craft-beer-nerd crossover is almost as strong, it turns out, as the beer-geek and geek-geek overlap which I’ve revelled in for years. ↑
4: The website’s run-down of their beers is depressingly out of date, but experience shows that this happens with basically every brewery, there being way too many items forever on the To Do list — a point beautifully lampooned by the in-progress page for Panhead. Graham Mahy, however, earns all sorts of bonus points for using the word “plethora”, something I’ve loved since Three Amigos. He’s also apparently the true creator of Moa’s original beer, now known as ‘Methode’ — which further suggests that they can continue to fuck right off with their incessant suggestion that Josh Scott is “the brewer”. ↑
5: Er, Spoiler Alert, I suppose. (Or maybe it’s a UPS box. I can’t recall.) ↑
6: See — just for example and just from myself — the entries for Yeastie Boys ‘PKB’, Deschutes ‘Hop in the Dark’, Croucher ‘Patriot’, Golden Ticket ‘Black Emperor’, Funk Estate Black IPA (which seems to be my fullest exposition on the idea), and Left Coast ‘The Wedge’. Close reading of those will probably reveal me even contradicting myself in my take on the phenomenon, but that’s kind of my point. ↑
7: In my favourite modern example, “peruse” is shifting from meaning reading thoroughly to mere browsing.a “Lager” comes from the German word for storing something away, but almost all modern lagers are brewed at breakneck speed. “Stout” was once an adjective appended to a subset of porters, but has come to be seen as a noun for a separate category; one of many kinds of non-porter ale. ↑
— a: In a brilliant coincidence, I found an article on the point which also references Three Amigos.
8: By which I mean two hundred and something, I think. I’ve got a stack of coasters and Post-Its and such to transcribe back in to the actual Diary, so I’ve somewhat lost count. ↑