These beers aren't bitter enough.
13 February 2017, By Jonny Garrett
Pluck a guitar string and watch it in slow motion. Each time the steel wire hits a high or low in the swing it goes a little less far, gravitating towards the centre and inertia again.
It could be said that beer does the same thing. Brewers discover a new technique or ingredient – lactose, grapefruit peel, biotransformation, tonka beans – and immediately use them to the extreme. The drinkers love it and go crazy for it; lines form at festivals' retailer servers fall sideways and Untappd check-ins go into overdrive. But then someone laments the lack of “balance” in beer, and brewers fly back the other way. They reject fruit beers or salty goses to start brewing traditional lagers and experimenting with British hops.
In no part of brewing is this process more obvious than bitterness. During its history, beer has gone from zero IBU right up to 2,000, and now the beer of the moment – East coast or New England IPAs – have landed us almost back where we started. We are nearly stationary again, and it’s easy to predict where we’re headed next.
The bitter arms race
Beer was discovered around 6,000 years ago by the Sumerians of the Middle East when they drank the sludge at the bottom of some spent grain from their baking and (presumably) got rosy cheeked/started feeling rather good about themselves. They put this feeling down to the gods, but continued to drink the liquid through straws – they even used the same jugs out of superstition, not realising they were actually recycling yeast rather than the favour of their deities.
Malt, the source of sweetness in beer, has always been a part of brewing but hops didn’t enter the equation for thousands of years, and even then most brewers used herbs and spices to add depth and bitterness. Over the centuries, hop bitterness has become integral to the characteristics of beer, from crisp German lagers to British IPAs, but it wasn’t until the American craft beer revolution that it became a badge of honour. It must have started as a side effect, as new US hops like cascade were tossed in the boil and fermenters in increasing quantities to get those glorious citrusy flavours. But as the IBU went up, so did people’s tolerance for it. In fact, some people craved it. Taste psychologists have suggested that, just like very hot chillies, humans get a small thrill out of drinking bitter beers. The bitter component of anything you eat or drink is always the last thing you taste because you mind needs to recognise it – it's actually the taste profile for poison. Not only does that explain why we dislike the taste of beer when we try it as teenagers, it also explains the little bit of adrenaline we get on drinking a big bitter beer – our body thinks we’re poisoning it.
This low-level addiction to bitterness )on top of the flavours it brought) meant that an arms race begun in American brewing. Everyone was trying to make a beer more bitter than the last, adding obscene quantities of hops to each batch in a bid to raise the IBUs. Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing Company called this the Lupulin Threshold Shift – the process by which an older IPA is made to seem boring by the next generation of bitterer IPAs
When Mikkeller brought out its 2000 IBU beer, the outer limits of the guitar string were it. As far as I can tell, it must have been impossible to add more hops without the beer becoming soup. And slowly the kick back down began. Brewers begun to ask how much flavour and aroma they could extract without adding bitterness and hop regimes all slid sideways towards the end of the brew, where fewer acids would isomerize (turn bitter) while the aromas would be heightened. The problem was that such late hopping also reduced the amount of flavour the hops would impart, so something needed to be done.
The answer some brewers came up with, still somewhat controversially, was haze. Up in the coldest, furthest reaches of New England, breweries like the Alchemist, Treehouse and Trillium were adding their dry hops earlier than all the brewing books told you too. Instead of waiting for the last few days of tank time, they were putting them in when the yeast was at its peak – sometimes so vigorous it looked like a rolling boil. In theory, the hop oils were meant to latch onto the malt proteins floating around, holding them in suspension so they wouldn’t drop out. They also purposely used English ale yeasts that produced soft stone fruit aromas and didn’t clarify like the clean US microbes. The result was turbid-looking beer that was loaded with juicy hop residues but comparatively low IBUs. Where the average West Coast IPA was around 65-70, New England IPAs were less than half that in some instances. Not only were they smooth on the finish, but the use of wheat and oats gave the beers a pillowy, cloud-like feel in the mouth, enhancing the drinkability of the beers.
The new arms race became fruitiness. How much like orange juice, or pineapple juice or Um Bongo could you make your beer seem? Not only were the beers delicious and unlike any style in brewing history, but they were easy for new beer drinkers to get into. There was no Lupulin Threshold to summit.
Recently this has culminated in pale ales and even IPAs with absurdly low IBUs –Gipsy Hill, who were the first to make an East Coast IPA in the UK, started the bar low with just 35IBU for their Drifter.
More recently, Lervig released the amazing Tasty Juice and Cloudwater/Brewdog collaborated on a 6.8% IPA with just 30 IBU. With all the incredible overripe fruit distracting the palate, it tasted like a lot less. We has hit the bottom of the guitar string’s oscillation again, with the tell-tale signs of people talking about balance and even some moaning about beer not tasting like beer any more.
Inevitably, beer will get more bitter again to find that sweet spot of all the perceived sweetness from the hops and the crisp, drying bitterness that makes beer so compelling and drinkable. East Coast IPA is inarguably a style in itself now, with low bitterness, haze and sweeter fruit aromas setting it apart, but it’s also a demonstration of how craft beer works and how it will in the future. We push the boundaries to show what is possible, and then refine the practises and results to create a new, defined style. This is the inertia, where you find lambic, bitter, porter and all the other styles with set parameters. Where they go next is anyone’s guess.