Name – Black Howler
Brewer – Blue Monkey
Classification – Black IPA
Strength – 5.9% ABV
Verdict - At A Glance
On the eye – Satan's blood. In a good way.
On the nose – Citrus infused licorice, Tabasco-heavy Bloody Mary, and raw fear.
On the tongue – A toasty, spicy, juicy instant classic.
On the subject – Just like me, Blue Monkey Brewery was born in Nottingham in 2008. (Yes, I am in fact a four year old, as my ex-wife will be more than happy to confirm.) This 'local connection' filled me a certain amount of trepidation as I was very keen not to have to find fault with a company of such extraordinarily noble birth. Turns out I needn't have worried...
On the market – Considering the number of awards this company have collected over recent years, I expect national coverage to rise rapidly, but some searching may be needed for now. This one came from TheReal Ale Store.
On the whole – 8.5/10
On the whole – 8.5/10
I love Black IPA's.
Now, obviously, there's every chance that such a dangerously generalised claim will come back to haunt me some day soon, perhaps when some of the less gifted breweries start 'having a go' at them and failing catastrophically – but the happy fact is that every company that's produced a Black IPA thus far has done so with tremendous success, and the delicious result of all this fevered experimentation is that the benchmark definition of this young beer style is transforming all the time.
It's a kind of supersonic evolution we're witnessing, with new interpretations on the essential 'theme' of this style (rich complex dark beer meets ultra-hopped light-bodied beer) hitting the shelves like dark matter bullets shot from some extra-dimensional realm.
To be clear about it – within the world that might be called 'cutting edge craft beer' Black IPA's have gone from non-existence to near domination in little over a year, and no serious contender for the (dubious) prize of 'coolest brewery' can afford to be without at least one of these beers in their portfolio.
And this brings us neatly to Blue Monkey Brewery. Already a certain contender for Kings of Cool with their standard range alone, these guys have made their claim even stronger by releasing a smaller selection of more experimental 'rare and one-off' brews under a totally separate label which they've named 'Endangered Species'. Black Howler is one of these.
So damn cool are these beers – that you won't even find them on the brewery's official website! Not even a mention. When a company starts denying the very existence of one of its own products, you just know you are stepping into the higher realms of serious bloody cool.
But of course none of this necessarily means that today's beer will actually be any good. As many of us who follow 'beer' learn more and more each day – any company's insistence on 'being cool' tells us nothing whatsoever about the quality of the products which lie behind the branding. In fact these days, a well trained beer-buying eye can detect the tell-tale signs of enforced cool and use it as a handy warning. 'Contains Toxic Self Awareness. Avoid Contact With Lips.'
Let's face it, brewery's can fail embarrassingly badly when they try to combine serious attempts at brewing beer with serious attempts at looking cool. Anyone can tell you that any serious attempt at looking cool is self defeating because the whole point of cool is that it's achieved without effort. There's obviously no better example of the self-defeating effects of coolness overkill than that of Brew Dog, a company whose genuinely excellent beers now have to enjoyed in secret by most serious minded drinkers.
So are Blue Monkey about to join Brew Dog in that murky territory where exemplary brewing talent inexplicably gives way to unrestrained vanity?
Well, not on this evidence, and that's not because Black Howler isn't a good enough beer in the first place – because believe me it is – it's simply because there are very clear signs that any vanity is being kept firmly at bay here. Firstly, the marketing of this range seems to be based on a genuine curiosity about the 'possibilities' of beer creation (they simply don't brew enough of these to be secretly fleecing us) and secondly because this great beer has been brewed and brought to market entirely without my knowledge. Brew Dog would never – ever – allow that to happen!
Black Howler is then – in marketing terms at least – a quiet beer. It's part of this brewery's exploration of the further reaches of beer experience, which people can chose to explore too if they so happen to come across it. In other words – it's actually pretty cool.
And it tastes pretty cool too. Lots of subtle spices, dark berried fruit, powerful licorice, toasted granary bread, glorious high reaching citrus (the key 'trick' of any good Black), roast chestnuts, char-grilled Cobra venom (I'd put money on it!) – this thing is just packed with all kinds of light-bodied zings, twangs and thwacks that keep you guessing (hence the Cobra venom), smiling, and of course sipping in equal amounts.
There's a fabulously ruthless bitterness in the finish which, to my taste at least, eventually leads to the licorice element lingering too long all by itself when I'd have liked some of the other complementary flavour themes to have stuck around longer with it, but that's me getting very picky considering the wealth of delicious positives.
This brew makes it clear to me that Blue Monkey are a force to be reckoned with. They are striding with impressive confidence across the new world of beer creativity, and finding some seriously impressive recipes along the way.
To my mind, that's exactly what contemporary brewing is all about.
When companies create products as unique and enjoyable as this one, those products need no further assistance to become cool.
When its brewed as expertly as this – beer is born cool.