The second beer in the new seasonal Icon series from Saint Arnold Brewery hits shelves this week in the form of Icon Blue. The beer, a Cascadian Dark Ale (or Black IPA), will be available in 12-ounce four-packs throughout the spring. While not all accounts have received their initial shipments, I've seen Blue in the wild at several stores already -- including at the D&Q Beer Station, where I picked up a four-pack last night.
Early examples of Black IPAs such as this were far more large-bodied -- some even approaching the malty flavor of a porter -- and happy to play up the sheer oddity of the newly emergent beer style. As the style continues to progress, we are finding more and more brewers examining the complexity -- and the difficulty -- of pairing roasted malt flavors with powerful American hop profiles. For example, Buffalo Sunrise Ale from Houston's own Buffalo Bayou Brewing took this juxtaposition one step further by supplementing the malt notes with a custom coffee addition made for them by Amaya Coffee Roasters.
Those hoping for a monster Black IPA with Icon Blue will be disappointed. Icon Blue falls into the later camp of thinking, shunning huge, sweet malt for a clean flavor with a subtle, light-roasted finish that arrives just as the bitter hops are fading. But I feel that Saint Arnold has made an excellent beer by subscribing to this "less is more" ideology. What it lacks in a hearty malt profile or a more unique hop schedule is supplanted by something I find myself longing for in this current heyday of over-the-top bourbon barrel aging and maple-syrup-bacon-Scotch-barrel beers: complexity in the basics.
Where Icon Blue shines is in a smart dry hop addition and a simple marriage of two very competing flavors. Yet it would be a mistake to call this beer simple. Simple beers do not wrangle four different hop varieties and maintain a consistent flavor profile. Simple beers do not have such large, toasty malt finishes. And most of all, simple beers do not have such wonderful hop aromas.
And that's something else to note: This beer smells delicious. Not since I had a week-old bottle of Saint Arnold Homefront have I encountered such an aromatic beer from this brewery. The nose on a typical Saint Arnold isn't usually my bag -- something about that Saint Arnold Ale yeast always comes through. Not here, however.
Another reason I enjoy Icon Blue is that it does a good job of differentiating the Cascadian Dark Ale style. Many critics have maligned the style for wandering too close to other, more traditional styles of beer. Some accuse it of being too much like a porter, while still others say it is simply borrowing darker malts and throwing them into an IPA. While I don't like giving too much credence to those pedantic enough to complain about beer, here I think you have a beer that, by paying attention to the details, walks right down the line of what a Black IPA should be, a style distinct enough to stand on its own.
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If the aim of the Icon series is to make very strong or "iconic" examples of individual styles -- which is what we hope the series finds itself doing -- Icon Blue is a strong submission, easily besting its predecessor, the underwhelming Icon Red.
I'm not entirely sure the Saint Arnold brewing team has yet made up its mind on what the overall theme of the Icon Series is supposed to be. Even their Web site seems a bit confused: "Some will be iconic of a beer style (which was the original concept), but some may demonstrate more creative interpretations or melding of beer styles." Regardless, Blue is here and it's a winner.