The Coming of the Anti-Unearthly

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a review for the Southern Tier Oak-Aged Unearthly Imperial IPA. I proclaimed it to be the best beer that I’ve had in a year, and I’m still singing its glories. The other day I discovered the Southern Tier Iniquity Imperial Black Ale – the self-described “antithesis of Unearthly.” The thought of Unearthly having an evil twin put me at the brink of having a stroke. I purchased a bottle and thus, the beat goes on.

If you haven’t tasted the Oak-Aged Unearthly yet (or just the standard non-oaked Unearthly), consider purchasing Iniquity along with it. After tasting and reviewing both, it became apparent that the best imbibing experience is having them side-by-side. Or, at the very least, one after the other. The Unearthly/Iniquity dyad is a lesson in the aromatic offerings that imperial light and dark ales have to offer. Iniquity, like Unearthly, is an explosion of flavor and aroma. It’s important that in reviewing Iniquity that I compare it to the O-A Unearthly so you understand the sharp contrast that takes place. In short, the aggressively-hopped Unearthly produces sweet fruity, floral, and earthy aroma/flavor notes, while Iniquity boasts chocolaty, roasty, and coffee-like qualities.

Let’s begin with the style, as it’s important to keep the brewer’s intentions in mind when reviewing a beer. Beer styles are not regulated by any one official organization; there is also no government oversight in this area. As far as the feds are concerned, a beverage is “beer” if it has hops and a small percentage of barley. However, there are various organizations and prominent individuals defining styles that have a much more expansive understanding of beer; the Brewers Association, a well-established group representing the nation’s craft brewers, has developed very specific technical details for beer styles. Their guidebook is based on historical considerations, prominence in the beer market and consumer acknowledgment of styles. Based on the constituency as well as its contributors, this is the source for beer styles that I trust most.

A chart of potential beer colors.

This guide is available for free, and it’s an indispensable resource for homebrewers like myself. You can find it here. Despite the fact that many craft brewers consider the details of this guide when brewing a beer, it is strictly up to the brewer to interpret the style – and that accounts for the exceptional variety and uniqueness that we have in the American craft beer market.

There’s plenty of classic styles that are well-known and easily recognized, such as stouts, porters, pale ales, and IPAs. But the less common and catch-all styles require discussion and understanding. Iniquity is one of these styles – an imperial black ale. Before I poured this beer, I read the label description as well as others’ reviews. It was coming off as if it were an IPA, brown ale, porter, or even a barleywine. The black ale, as defined by the Brewers Association, should pack a “medium high to high hop bitterness, flavor and aroma” with a “medium-high” alcohol content and “medium” body. The taste/aroma should be more like that of an IPA – “Fruity, floral and herbal.” It should also be underscored by the malt element of a porter or stout with a “moderate degree of caramel malt character and dark roasted malt flavor and aroma,” but no roasty bitterness should be detectable. The color should be near black to pitch black. This style is occasionally referred to as a “black IPA,” which I think is the best way of summing up the description formulated by the Brewers Association. Other examples of black ales include 21st Amendment’s Back in Black and the Sublimely Self-Righteous Ale by Stone. Keeping the “black IPA” idea in mind as well as others descriptions of this beer, I set out to review. That said, I still had questions about how this would differ from hoppy versions of porters, such as Flying Dog’s Gonzo Imperial Porter.

This brew is served in a 22 oz./650mL bottle and features the same ingredients list as the O-A Unearthly. Here’s the label specs:

Alc. 9.0% by Vol.; 21 degrees Plato; 2-row pale malt; debittered black malt; kettle hops: chinook, cascade; hop back: willamette; dry hops: cascade, centennial

It definitely features a hop profile similar to that of the O-A Unearthly, and it’s similarly hopped with multiple varieties in three vessels. Since the only two malt ingredients are pale malt and black malt, I imagined it would be an imperial IPA with a very dark appearance – perhaps a black Unearthly. I served it at 42F (as the label suggested) in a large snifter to capture the intense aroma. The pour revealed a brew that was not quite black; Iniquity is very dark brown with rich copper and chestnut highlights when held to the light. A coarse and bubbly head developed and slowly receded to a thin surface covering, settling out as a ring of soapy foam with great lacing.

The pour unleashed an unbelievably complex aroma of sweet milk chocolate and strong coffee-like roastiness. Secondary smoky and spicy aromatics complemented the dark maltiness exceptionally well. A hint of citrus was also detectable, and unfortunately the only evidence of hops employed in the brewing and conditioning processes. I think that the brewers’ intention for Iniquity was to have the strong fruity and floral notes of the Unearthly contrasting to the chocolate/coffee/smoky notes that decidedly overpower the hop aromas. I’m not sure that I’d know the difference if the brewers chose to use less hops and fewer hopping methods. However, it strikes me as irrelevant because we’re concerned with the dark malty flavors here. The taste reflected the aroma, yet the smokiness appears up front followed by bittersweet chocolate and roasty coffee notes. Vanilla rounds out and mellows the heartier notes and finishes with a rum-like flavor. It lacks strong bitterness, like that of a stout, because it’s brewed with debittered black malt. Regardless, the absence of bitterness was a bit of a head-scratcher considering the volume of hops.

As an imperial ale, Iniquity is very sturdy; it’s heavy and full on the tongue. The carbonation is very, very smooth and this yields a wonderful creamy texture. It has a slick and silky finish with no residual syrupy quality. The alcohol content is much more apparent in Iniquity than Unearthly despite a lower percentage by volume. Regardless, at 9% it’s severely drinkable and this is due to the impeccable mouthfeel and carbonation – very appropriate for this style. It terms of this factor, it was indistinguishable from the O-A Unearthly.

So my overall impression is as follows: if “black ale” is synonymous with “black IPA,” this certainly isn’t one. It doesn’t quite fit the Brewers Association outline for the style. It’s not quite black (but close), it definitely does not showcase a medium-high hop bitterness, and fails to develop fruity or herbaceous aromas. It seems to fall somewhere in between an imperial brown ale and an imperial porter. While that sounds like a pretty damning criticism of the ale, I rated Iniquity very high simply because it’s a well-constructed brew in every respect. The color is gorgeous, it holds a head fairly well, the aroma and flavors are outstanding, the texture is perfect, and the drinkability is nothing but pleasurable. I think that craft beer nerds looking for the next IPA experience in a black ale should look elsewhere; this is a pleaser for the brown ale crowd looking for something a step up. The barleywine-passionate will also find a friend in Iniquity. If we examine it as purely a dark beer, it’s damn near perfect. Chocolate, coffee, roastedness, smokiness, and spice are all typical characteristics of dark beers. The complexity, levels, and degrees through which these notes appear in Iniquity are impeccable; the vanilla and rum notes in the flavor are an exceptional match.

Unearthly/Iniquity – an expression of good and evil crafted by the hand of God? I think so.

Cheers,
Dan

A few facts about Iniquity that you should know:

  • Brewery/location: Southern Tier Brewing Company (266 mi. from Philadelphia)
  • Name/style/ABV: Iniquity; American Black Ale; 9% ABV
  • Availability: Year-round
  • Serving temp. and glassware: 42F; tulip, snifter
  • Pairing suggestion: Chocolate and coffee notes will complement chocolate desserts; roasty and smoky notes will serve as a great pairing choice for spicy stews or grilled vegetables; cheese: 3-year+ aged gouda
  • Standout quality/area(s) for improvement: Body, mouthfeel, and carbonation are all perfect for the beer and imperial style; hop aromas are largely muted against the complex malt profile; needs to be darker and more bitter for the “black IPA” style.
  • Bold statement: Iniquity plays an important supporting role to my favorite beer from the past year.
  • My BeerAdvocate rating/BA community rating: A/A-

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SRM Color Chart borrowed from “The Screwy Brewer.”

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One Response to The Coming of the Anti-Unearthly

  1. dankbrewz says:

    While I have had some of Southern Tier’s beers, I have not yet had the privilege to try any of the beer mentioned in your post(s). However, I am anxiously awaiting Southern Tier’s debut in the great state of North Carolina (which multiple sources have told me will be sometime in the next few months). Regardless, you have sold me on doing a side by side with these beers when they become available in NC. Great post, I really enjoy reading the colorful and meaningful commentary you provide on the beers you have been trying, it is a real refreshing change from what the majority of folks are doing.

    Cheers
    Mike

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