Just What IS a Cascadian Dark Ale?
Cascadian. Dark. Ale. Three words which, taken one by one, are fairly easy to define.
Cascadia: Bio-region that includes the western ends of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia.
Dark: A shade either black or approaching blackness.
Ale: Quicker, top-fermented beer, made at warmer temperatures.
But put those three together and you get…something murky.
The common wisdom has it that the CDA – as we Hip Beer Geeks call it – is simply a Black IPA. That’s generally true but not at all specifically true, any more than it’s true that an APA (American Pale Ale) is the same thing as a NWPA (Northwest Pale Ale). A Black IPA is a far more generic term; an ale that can be made with any old hops and grains, sourced anywhere on the planet. There are several BIPAs that I’ve tasted that used German hops and they were lovely beers but they had none of the character that makes up a CDA. Cascadian Dark Ales are made with grains and hops sourced from the world’s largest hops-growing regions, the Yakima Valley of Washington and the Willamette Valley of Oregon. They’re made in the Northwest style of hoppy beers, which is, generally speaking, a lot more aggressively bitter and complex than hoppy beers made elsewhere in the US. I’ve tasted IPAs, now, from forty states and DC and was told, in many cases, that I should take caution with them because, “It’s REALLY bitter!” It was only after I had tasted between eighteen and twenty of those Elsewhere IPAs that it became clear that what “bitter” means is radically different in the PNW than it is everywhere else, with the possible, occasional exception of California. Same with the NWPA. About a dozen Easterners with whom I’ve corresponded offer the opinion that Deschutes “Red Chair” NWPA is really an IPA. To those of us in WA/OR/ID/BC, Red Chair is pleasantly hoppy and generally a tremendous beer. One of my pals in Baltimore found it undrinkable: “Have all you guys in Seattle burned out your taste buds, or what? That shit just about removed my soft palate!”
BUT…what the term “Cascadian Dark Ale” is precisely is still shrouded in Darkness. I’ve provided a handy list of eleven below that will give you a reference to use in buying some, if you’re new to the concept. The exact parameters of what makes up CDA is still very much in question and, honestly, is something which will probably never be codified. Nor should it. Going from one DIPA to another Imperial IPA quickly establishes that, within one style of beer, there are near-infinite variations and interpretations. Some CDAs are as light-bodied as a Brown Ale, with less aggressive roast flavors and seem somewhat dominated by their hops, while some are little short of a Stout and bring their roasted notes into a balance with the hops. Some are nearly as light-bodied as a Pale Ale, while some are nearly as viscous as a Yeti or Dark Lord. There’s no consensus and you’ll find examples on both the lighter and denser ends of the spectrum that are absolutely dazzling. It serves as a good general statement to say that the CDA has evolved into an ale with less body than a Stout or BIG Porter, as most brewers seem to have leaned that way. There are many Stouts, these days, that register at higher IBU levels than CDAs. Deschutes “The Abyss” comes in at about 85 IBUs, Perennial “Abraxas” reads 80, and Cigar City’s classic Hunahpu’s also shows 80 IBUs, the difference being that, in a massive 30-weight Stout like those, the hops serve mostly to balance out the massive malt character and keep the beer from being too cloyingly sweet. They are literally masked by the dominant roast traits and have to be aggressive just to be detected.
None of the ones listed below attains the epic scale of a massive American-style Stout but most exist in the very beginning of that continuum that includes Porters and/or Belgian Quads. The ONLY definitive statement that can be made at this point in the style’s evolution is the thumbnail description: “A dark ale with elevated hops character.” That’s IT. This seems to bother some people profoundly. There are rather a LOT of people, these days, who want to look under the hood of anything they buy. They have to know what grape(s) are in their wines, the age of their Whiskeys, the horsepower of their cars, the processor speed of their laptop…and so it goes. To properly appreciate and find the CDA that appeals most to you, you’ll have to try to overcome that cultural programming a bit and live with a bit of mystery; a touch of Darkness. I have what I think is the definitive CDA in the back of my head, or at least the direction I hope the style takes. But, as someone who values brewers and their creativity, I’m quite willing to be surprised. If you haven’t wandered into the CDA realm as yet, taste these eleven lovely, distinctive ales and decide for yourself. For purposes of this post, any brewer, even from the Cascadia region, who wasn’t willing to call the beer a Cascadian Dark Ale or simply chose the term “Black IPA” is not included. I, like most of us who live in this quirky, bountiful region of the Americas, like to celebrate our virtues and point out the unique drinking experience that is the emerging CDA. These are also only ones that can be found in bottles or cans, since those taproom specials will elude many of our national readers…but I’ve tossed in two tap-only beers that just cannot be denied or overlooked.
Here, then, is my list of the Northwest’s most distinctive CDAs…
Howe Sound Brewing of Squamish, British Columbia, is a DAZZLING brewery but one that many Americans, even here in the NW, knows little about. They make a sweeping variety of ales and hit as high a quality standard as any of their brethren to the south, not to mention being situated in what has to be the most fantastic location of any North American brewery, right on the water in the breath-taking Howe Sound, in the arms of mountains that seem to spring out of the waters and down a vertiginous cliff from the highway connecting Vancouver to Whistler.
Their version of the CDA is called “The Gathering Storm” and the name fits. It pours from the 1 liter, swing-capped bottles like diluted molasses and offers up decadent flavors of coffee and licorice and chocolate and roasted everything, in a texture like liquid satin. Storm is definitely the Stout end of the CDA spectrum but light enough that you’ll recognize its “not quiteness” in an instant. The flavors are big and definite, just as with all Howe Sound brews and the hops come blasting out of the background darkness like little Roman candle shots. This is a fine CDA by a brewery that deserves a lot wider recognition. 93 Points
Oakshire Brewing of Eugene, OR, weighs in with “O’Dark :30”.a solidly medium-weight CDA that shows a subtle but bewitching note of coconut in between the mocha and molasses and graham crackers. A hint of brandied raisins lurks in the background and there are fleeting traces of various fruits, along with a rock-solid, edgy bitterness that plays artfully off the suggestions of sweetness. This is such an admirably creamy ale that it begs the question of whether oats were part of the grain bill. Answer: Not that I know of. Original Brewmaster Matt Van Wyk – who has since moved on to start Alesong Brewing – saw the challenge as restraint; creating a dark color without shoving it too far toward traditional dark ales. He had a definite idea of what hops profile he wanted to create and gauged the malts accordingly. Oakshire properly regards this style of ale as a tribute to the traditions of Northwest hops growing and wanted to showcase the hops in a dark, instead of the knee-jerk IPA. New Brewmaster Tyler West carries out the concept perfectly. What he got in the 2016 edition is a near-perfect weight and a compulsive drinkability. This is the CDA that is most amenable, out of this whole list, to your craft newbie friend who may still be a little scared of the Dark. 92 Points
Ecliptic Brewing is the newest outfit in this list…but not really. Ecliptic founder and Brewmaster John Harris is a genuine Oregon brewing icon, having started at McMennamin’s, moved on to Deschutes, pre-Larry Sidor, and then a grand twenty years at Full Sail. Ecliptic is his baby and his deft stamp is all over this gorgeous bottle of “Coalsack”, a CDA that hits every conceivable balance to be had in making a dark ale with prominent hops. Harris’ virtue in this ale is that he didn’t try to do too much. Rock-solid medium body, toasty/roasty notes with grip and staying power, velvety mousse, and hops that avoid the description “aggressive” by just that scant hair that separates very good from exceptional. This ale is wickedly drinkable but just a tad larger and more bitter than the Oakshire. This is a CDA that craft novices and hard-core HopHeads can drink and enjoy and it lays on the cocoa, black coffee, black currants, mixed berries, orange peel, and a flattering little touch of white peaches with real authority. John Harris has been around so freakin’ long that many people felt. when he opened Ecliptic, that there would be nothing left in his bag of tricks. Boy, were they wrong. 93 Points
You would struggle to fill a bathtub with everything that’s available in bottles from Northwest/Washington icons, Mac & Jack’s Brewing, of Redmond. The world’s largest keg-only brewery recently surrendered that title and, in response to over 20 years of begging,wheedling, and attempted bribery,started putting beers like their Serengeti Wheat, the immortal African Amber, and Black Cat Porter into bottles! That may not sound like much t you but for the legions of M&J fans everywhere, it was YUGE news. Their African Amber, in Northwest pubs, outsells Budweiser and Coors. We’re not talking about fern bars, here. These are places where longshoremen and iron workers and fishermen come to drink. The stuff is THE single most cloned recipe in American brewing and was the first Washington beer ever to be sold unfiltered. With the arrival of Mac & Jack’s CDA, about six years ago, the concept of Cadcadian Dark Ale started to penetrate the famously-reticent Washington beer consciousness and a real niche for this ale took shape. This is a relentlessly satisfying take on the CDA. It’s creamy as a milkshake, bursting with mellow, dark flavors – burnt sugar, caramel, fruitcake, fresh figs, black coffee, dark-toasted bread, molasses cookies – and yet ladles out the vivid hops-driven spices, herbs, grapefruit, spruce tips, and jasmine with a shovel. As of this writing, Mac & Jacks is running over one thousand barrels behind on existing orders, has been for the past six years, and according to co-owner Malcolm “Mac” Rankin, may literally never catch up. THAT is how popular this former garage brewing operation has become to the state of Washington and the Northwest brewing tradition. 95 Points
Speaking of icons, Hopworks Urban Brewery of Portland has achieved that status almost by acclamation, turning out ale after ale that shouts out their NW/Organic roots with every sip. Certainly, HUB’s all-organic, carbon-neutral CDA, “Secession”, is the most timely beer on this list, with all the CalExit and Oregon secession talk that’s going on in the wake of the November 8th Disaster, but that aside, the straight-forward majesty of this instant classic announces itself before the first sip even leaves your mouth. Make no mistake about it, the show here is NW Hops: resins galore, hempseed, mint, grilled whole-grain bread, roasted nuts, pine needles, sweet herbs, roasted malts, treacle, dark caramels…this ale is the complete package. It may, in fact, as the tradition of the CDA comes into sharper focus, be a touch larger than what the trend becomes but changing it at all would be like tagging the Sistine Chapel. This is an ale that leaves not a damned thing to be desired and has to be in the discussion for what “CDA” means and will come to be. 95 Points
Pelican Brewing, located right on the beach in tiny Pacific City, Oregon, saves their CDA for Christmas consumption and it is absolutely worth waiting for. “Bad Santa” is everything the name implies; a free-wheeling, raunchy delight from start to finish. This ale tastes like it was made while everybody in the brewery was drunk – and that is a compliment, not a criticism. There’s something a little wild and unrestrained about this ale, and from the esteemed Pelican – winners of the GABF Brewery of The Year Gold a couple of times – this tastes like the cut-loose exception to their usual carefully-crafted offerings. This is an example of how a little “out of balance” can work and work like a freakin’ Trojan. The flavors are everywhere: molasses, horehound, citrus peels, mango, cafe au lait, bitter chocolate, resins like licking a pine tree, licorice, baking spices, mint, cloves…just such a scatter-gun of inspired randomness that all makes perfect sense, in some truly perverse way. Best descriptor for this UnGodly stuff: “Wicked“.This is a shameful, wicked, sinful ale and I love every drop of it, every time I taste it. 96 Points
Now, we come to the versions of the CDA that I think SHOULD be the template for what comes after this in the evolution of the Cascadian Dark Ale. All other considerations aside, what SHOULD matter most about an emerging beer style is now great it tastes. Styles don’t become established and aspire to iconic by “educating the drinker”. That is a tired, old fairy tale that deserves a painful death. What matters most in beer is this: “Do people want to drink this? Do they demand to drink more?” Beer purists and self-anointed beer “experts” yammer on about the authenticity of the style and ooze condescension but that fat 85+% of all beer drinkers whose money makes the whole culture possible just wants something that tastes great. These do. My best guess is that the Golden Mean of the CDA lies somewhere within these three emerging classics…and what they mostly have in common is that they’re spectacularly delicious and perfectly express the idea of “hoppy dark ale from the Pacific Northwest“…
pFriem Family Brewers is the relative New Kid of the Hood River brewing scene but has hit the ground running with stunning beers in the British and Belgian and German brewing traditions. Owner/Brewmaster Josh pFriem worked for American brewing legend, Wil Kemper, at the hallmark Chuckanut Brewing of Bellingham, Washington, where Kemper’s world-class prowess with German-style beers laid the groundwork for a clarity and purity of flavor that marks every pFriem beer. Unlike his mentor, who rarely strays very far outside the mid-European continuum, Josh pFriem is equally at home with British ales, Belgian-styles, Flanders-style sours, and experimental beers of all types. His pFriem CDA is the lighter end of this trio of textbook CDAs that help set the parameters for this type of ale. The roast flavors are firm and emphatic but all in scale to the spirit of the style. Hops are what this ale is about and the hops announce themselves with authority from the first sip. Dark caramels lead the malt profile, followed by currants, licorice, black coffee, and bittersweet chocolate. The hops lean toward spices and pine resins, with furtive little fruit notes by the fistful. There is a fine complexity about this beer and that geeky appeal does nothing at all to detract from its easy drinkability and HopHead edginess. As with all pFriem beers, this is a near-perfect portrait of its brewer and its designated style. 96 Points
One of the real tricks to making a convincing CDA is the artful challenge of folding the native bitterness of dark-roasted flavors – the charred notes, coffee bean, blackstrap molasses, and unsweetened chocolate – into the deliberate bitterness of the hops without sparking a catfight. In “Swordfish” Double Cascadian Dark Ale, Fish Tale Brewing of Olympia, Washington, has turned this trick as well as any brewery I’ve sampled from anywhere in the US. Swordfish is heading into its fifth year of production and it just keeps getting better, even through a change of brewers. Fish’s answer to the bitterness dilemma was to lower the IBUs but make what’s there more assertive. In some ways, Swordfish verges on Porter territory. It’s rich and deep and creamy and doesn’t back off a millimeter from its frank delivery of black coffee and chocolate and licorice and molasses cookies and burnt sugar. The coffee and chocolate are unsweetened. The licorice is more root than candy. The molasses is pure blackstrap, and those fold neatly as origami into the spicy, herbal, resiny punch of its Amarillo hops. This and the next CDA on the list are easily the most rib-sticking examples of this style and I’m NOT suggesting that bigger is better in the CDA spectrum but this one is just SO satisfying and complete than the hair’s-breadth shot of Porter Territory you find here still leaves plenty of room between CDA and the big malt bombs. This has been my benchmark CDA for its entire history and the fact that someone finally matched it is a positive for the whole style category. 98 points
That “someone” who finally caught the Fish is another Pacific Northwest icon, the venerable Full Sail Brewing of Hood River, Oregon, literally less than 200 yards from the aforementioned pFriem. I’ll just say this and let everybody (including Full Sail, I guess) make up their own minds about what to think, but Full Sail “Shortest Day CDA” is the best beer Full Sail Brewing has ever made. Full Sail is NOT the Flavor of The Week in this part of the American craft brewing world. It doesn’t get mentioned universally in the trendy lists of Best Breweries in America. I speak to people occasionally who hear me say something about these guys and they chuckle indulgently, as though I had confessed to listening to Lawrence Welk. I just laugh and shake my head. The overlooking of established producers of anything, from beverages to cars to power tools to watches to cat food, is practically an American tradition. In selling wine, I watched thousands of people skim right by bottles of Januik and Mondavi and Ponzi and Peter Lehmann to grab up the Newest Shiny Bauble. It’s human nature but it’s also stupid. Full Sail has hit its stride and I avidly promote their beers for ONE reason: They’re Really GOOD.”Shortest Day” is everything a Cascadian Dark Ale should be.It’s not even a little bit sweet but delivers dark chocolate, ground coffee, rich caramels, a myriad of fruit notes, spices in the background, and hops that run the gamut from floral to resins to herbs to citrus and back. It stops well short of the sheer scale of Swordfish and back-peddles considerably on the velvety texture but still delivers enough richness and depth to flat-out nail the “dark” part of the equation every bit as well and thoroughly as any Porter or Stout.
Shortest Day is as close as anyone has come to actually defining this style…but the catch is, for anybody else to equal it, they’ll have to practically be Jamie Emmersen, Full Sail Brewmaster who started at FS in 1988 and trained under NW legend, John Harris. The history and collective acumen of Full Sail is extraordinary and in the obvious thought, judgment, restraint, and Everyman attitude they display, there are distinct notes of kinship with their titanic brethren to the South, Deschutes Brewery of Bend. John Harris, in fact, worked at Deschutes before coming to FS and his massive influence is still felt in both breweries. It’s that rock-solid acumen and almost casual expertise that I detect in Shortest Day. Somebody got this style EXACTLY right. Is this, then, what every CDA should be, from here on out? Hell no! What sets Northwest craft brewing apart most is the common ability to riff off of beer styles and find some overlooked approach that advances the style and the culture. With Shortest Day,Full Sail has dropped the mic on this beer style, circa 2016. As for tomorrow…well, advocates of this magical, evolving style will be the beneficiaries of all that inspired tweakery. 99 points
Two last CDAs which, if you ever find yourself in either Bend, Oregon, or that little slice of Heaven in far Northeastern Oregon called Wallowa County, you MUST seek out and try…
Few American craft beer fans will not have already heard of Boneyard Brewing. The verging-on-legendary stable of IPAs, the titanic Stoutness of “Suge Knite”, the across-the-board excellence, the edgy, tattoo-inspired graphics…Boneyard has made a Major mark in a very short time and their version of the CDA, “Armored Fist CDA” is easily the most aggressive, full-frontal edition of this style made yet. It’s a balls-out assertive mouthful of bright, vivid hops that float atop a remarkable bed of defiantly unsweet char/roast flavors that add in molasses and brown sugar to form a semi-sweet first impression that quickly gives way to a solid slap on the tongue. For sheer drinking pleasure that doesn’t trip my incessant, tiresome urge to over-analyze everything I taste, Armored Fist and Suge Knite both stop me dead in my intellectual tracks and whisper, “Shut the f**k up and just enjoy this!” Armored Fist is NOT for newbies of the faint of hops but, for those of us who live in the hops-centric Northwest and embrace our regional agricultural touchstone in a bear hug, Fist is excatly what we want and need in something dank, dark, hoppy, and charred. 97 Points
Go northeast of Bend about 332 miles, along a route that should appear in the dictionary next to the word “indirect“, and you find yourself in Enterprise, Oregon, which is not the end of the Earth but, if you drive eight miles farther, you’ll wind up there. Oregon Highway 82, in all of its alarming, twisty, two-lane majesty, creeps out to the far northeast corner of the state and come to a full stop at a ranger’s gate just past the southern end of picturesque Wallowa Lake. There is no other way out but to turn around go back the way you came. And at that eight-mile marker sits a small, bursting brewery – right across an Enterprise side-street from the local Porta-Potty supplier – called Terminal Gravity Brewing. We have good friends in the next town down the road, Joseph, and they know I love beer, so on our very first visit to their ranch, in 2009, they took me over to Enterprise to visit TG, as the locals call it. Each visit since, we make time to drop by again because the beers…are…WONDERFUL. On my third visit to TG, in 2011, I saw a CDA on the chalkboard, thought “Zowie!“, and ordered it. Remember, here, that many of the CDAs on this list didn’t even exist in 2011. So there was even less of a template for the style than there is now. One sip and I was Gone. It was BIG and rich and hoppy as a sackful of frogs and creamy – My God, the head was almost like a milkshake! – and I realized that, set before me blind, I’d have a pretty tough time figuring out if it was a Porter, Stout, or whatever this new CDA thing is. Not that it mattered, as I sat drinking it. It was just spec-damn-tacular! This was easily one of the top five best American dark anythings I had ever tasted and yet the hops blasted out of that rich murkiness like bottle rockets. At the time, I don’t think it had its current name and I’m not even really sure they still make it but, if they do, it’s called “Cave Dweller” and it haunts my dreams. It’s draft-only and it’s seasonal, so a random visit to the brewery may not find it available but their label seems to suggest that they may, occasionally, stick some in a bottle. Yeah, it’s too big and too Stout-ish and probably not the direction the CDA will eventually take, but, for sheer balls-to-the-wall sipping pleasure, Cave Dweller is a hedonist’s wet dream and, before our next visit, I plan to call and badger brewmaster Frank Helderman to bust out a keg and let me lay under it. 95 Points