Karben4 Brewing hasn't been around too long. After debuting at the end of last year, the new north Madison brewery held a grand opening celebration in January. All six of its beers to date have been well made, but it's the black and hoppy Silk Scorpion that has become an early favorite.
The fable about a frog carrying a scorpion on its back across a river inspired Karben4 co-owner and brewmaster Ryan Koga when it came to naming this black IPA. As the story is told, midway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog, dooming them both. Koga says his beer, Silk Scorpion, is indeed silky smooth, with a seductive chocolate maltiness that can talk you into another, but with a stinger in its underlying hoppiness. Silk Scorpion is great choice for those wanting to get to know this young local brewery.
What is it? Silk Scorpion Black IPA by Karben4 Brewing of Madison, Wisconsin
Style: Silk Scorpion falls into the category of black hoppy beers known as American-style India Black Ales or IBAs. They're sometimes called Cascadian Dark Ales, especially when the dominate hop is Cascade. Some brewers also refer to them as black IPAs; however there is disagreement over descriptors like "black" and "pale" to describe the same beer (as IPAs are typically golden to bronze-colored, and packed with a hoppy bite). Koga himself prefers Black IPA for Silk Scorpion, since he set out to make an IPA, and one with a deep black color.
Overall, this is a beer style that is growing in popularity among hoppy beer fans for its medium to high hoppy bitterness in flavor and aroma, along with a modest amount of chocolate and caramel maltiness. These brews can offer a roastedness from the malt, but they should not have burnt flavors. They commonly range in strength from 6% to 7.5% ABV.
Background: That hoppy "stinger" in Silk Scorpion comes mostly from Citra hops, known for their floral and tropical-citrus tones. Koga also uses Galena and Cascade hops, which offer a blend of bitterness, but it's the Citra that remains front and center. The beer's color and body comes from additions of five different varieties of malt.
Expanding on the story behind this beer, Koga is a fan of the 2011 movie Drive, which stars Ryan Gosling. It is a modern version of the classic fable, one in which Gosling wears a silk jacket with an embroidered scorpion on the back. Koga and his brewery partners actually have replica jackets, which they wore to their grand opening. Drive also inspired the name of the Karben4's smoked porter, NightCall, the title of a song from the movie's soundtrack that Koga says he and his partners listened to a lot while renovating their brewery in the space previously occupied by Ale Asylum.
The imagery of the scorpion is also evident in a painting that overlooks the Karben4 taproom. It was painted by Tom Kowalke, a high school friend of owners Ryan and Zak Koga who is often found working behind the bar.
Silk Scorpion sells for $6/pint and $16/growler (refill) in the Karben4's taproom. It's the first in what Koga hopes will be a changing lineup of IPAs by the brewery. His next IPA, a summer-oriented version, is expected to be released in time for Madison Craft Beer Week in May. As for the future of Silk Scorpion, Koga says its popularity will likely ensure its return, perhaps even as a bourbon barrel-aged version.
Karben4 is gradually increasing production of its beers, which can now be found on draught in about 10 taprooms and bars around Madison. Bottles are slated to appear at some point in late 2013.
- Aroma: Light hoppiness, hints of grapefruit bitterness.
- Appearance: Deep black color, with a medium soft tan-brown head.
- Texture: Medium- to full-bodied. Soft and silky mouthfeel.
- Taste: The smooth chocolate and caramel maltiness is up front, with a firm bitterness in the background that lingers into the finish.
- Finish/Aftertaste: Overall, the chocolate malts come back a little in the end, but the citrus bitterness lingers, adding a nice latent dryness.
Glassware: Karben4 serves Silk Scorpion in a standard bar pint. Given a choice and if taking home a growler, it's better suited for the Willi Becher, which will show off the jet black color. The inward taper gently focuses the hoppy aroma so you can get a better idea of the Citra hops.
Pairs well with: Karben4 is still working on its food offerings. Chef Jeff Whitford is using ingredients from the Underground Food Collective for many of his creations, some of which add a twist to typical tavern food. A few examples: housemade Bavarian pretzels, a meat and cheese board and platter of deviled eggs with four types of toppings (prices range from $4 to $16). These make for interesting appetizer-type companions with beer, but not if you're looking for basic bar pizza or burgers. The hoppiness of Silk Scorpion is a nice accompaniment to the pulled pork sandwich, housemade barbeque sauce and melted, aged white cheddar.
Rating: Four Bottle Openers (out of four)
The Verdict: Silk Scorpion has deep black color and a firm underlying chocolate maltiness that accentuates the silky-smooth mouthfeel. There's a light roastedness to the chocolate tones, but not the burnt flavor that can be associated with dark malts. All that malt lends balance and depth, complementing but not allowing the hops to completely take over the beer. This isn't an in-your-face hop monster, just solidly hopped beer with a firm malty core. The Cascade and Galena hops do add a spicy and resiny edge to the bitterness, but the IPA character of this beer is really about the Citra hops -- a fruity bitterness with tropical tones of apricot, tangerine and grapefruit.