My new day job comes with many perks, such as a paycheck and free coffee. The money is probably my favorite part, because I’m a crass jerk with no soul or trust fund, but I really do appreciate the coffee, too. It’s not just a couple of vacuum pumps of hours-old, gas-station grade Deluxe Tuscan Sumatran Blend, either. Every morning the staff barista comes in to brew a couple different varieties from a highly regarded local coffee company, and prepares all sorts of custom-fitted steamed, foamed and syruped drinks for people with the time and confidence to spare on that sort of operation first thing in the morning.
Well, I suppose you could order your fancy coffee second thing in the morning, but you don’t want to wait much longer than that, because the coffee guy cuts out around noon every day. Oh, man, here it comes. This is where I complain about my free coffee. I think I’d prefer round-the-clock gas-station coffee to the good stuff early and then nothing at all after lunch. This means a body requiring early-afternoon maintenance has no choice but to sneak out to one of the 10 coffee places within a short stroll of the office.
Yup, 10. I counted the other day. And the best part is that only half of them are Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts. I’d make do with either of those if necessary, but I like the option of paying for better coffee from an independent business when possible. Dunkin’ Donuts coffee is, of course, terrible, but I’ve settled for terrible coffee on plenty of otherwise-fine days; Starbucks is clearly much better, though I do agree with the common criticism that a lot of its coffee is over-roasted and too bitter.
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That said, I like some bitterness in my coffee, and that’s not always easy to find at the higher-end new places these days. It seems that coffee culture has overcorrected for the extreme bitterness that took hold with Starbucks’ rise, and now there’s a disarms race to see who can brew the softest, gentlest cup in town. I don’t need the most aggressive coffee under the sun, but I’m growing weary of places that brew barely roasted beans an ounce a cup at room temperature, then have the snuggliest barista available wrap it in his scarf and warm it up between his thighs for a couple minutes before serving, so as not to extract too much scary, scary bitterness from the beans.
And the same thing’s happening with beer, damn it. On the whole, I enjoy the often-cloudy, rarely bitter Northeast-style India pale ales that have been dominating the rating-site leaderboards for the past few years, but I think many of them share a common flaw that matters way more than their dumb appearance: They’re one-dimensional, liquefied fruit salads that proudly lack the bitterness that made IPA great in the first place.
Much is made of the way these beers look, but even though I confess to not finding hazy beer particularly attractive, I don’t much care either way. This means I’m not particularly concerned with what methods are used to produce this ugliness. American yeast, hop-chunks, flaked oats, flour and whatever other truths and rumors are out there are all fine with me. My only gripe is that the bitterness seems to be pushed aside whenever the clouds roll in.
I’m not advocating for a return to the dumb old days when brewers competed to see who could hurt drinkers’ faces the most by extracting maximum bitterness from their hops. Those triple-digit IBU clods from the mid- to late-2000s were just as underdeveloped as the one-trick juice bombs of today. What I’d like is a return to somewhat more moderate, inclusive IPAs that offer a pronounced bitter sensation without overwhelming the fruit and floral notes. Hell, remember when some IPAs even tasted a little bit like malted barley? I believe “Midwestern” was the slur we used against those misguided beers. I miss them.
The current obsession with late hop additions (generally speaking, the earlier you add the hops, the more bitterness you impart to your beer) was a refreshing change of pace at first, but it’s gone too far. I’m all for tossing in a small measure of fruity, modern hops at the last minute to add a tropical aroma to an already-complete beer. But too many IPA brewers, especially on the East Coast, seem to be completely disregarding the rest of the brewing process and focusing solely on how much Mosaic they can manage to cram in after the fact.
I fully expect that within the next 18 months, a brand-new brewery in Long Island City will offer a Not-Yet-Hopped IPA: You’ll wait in line for an hour to buy a $20 four-pack at the brewery, and one of the poor chumps who trades labor for beer and T-shirts will come back to your apartment with you to wave a few cones of Citra over your beer right after you pour it into your glass. He’ll give you three minutes to photograph it and then another six to drink it before he slaps it out of your hand and declares it to be too old for human consumption. And then the less-ambitious imitators will do a version where they attach a rubber satchel of citrus zest and pineapple juice to the neck of each bottle of otherwise flavorless IPA.
And this pernicious backlash against bitterness isn’t limited to IPAs. The new craft pilsners we’ve been warned about for several years now are finally on the shelves, and too many of the more highly acclaimed ones replace the earthy, bitter bite of classic European noble hops with a fruity American and Southern Hemisphere breed that may make for a nice beer, but doesn’t make a credible pilsner. Big stouts are more and more frequently subjected to extensive barrel-aging, which can produce lovely sweet vanilla and oak notes at the expense of classic bitterness. And coffee stouts and porters are being made with cold brew that’s specifically engineered to deprive coffee of one of its essential traits.
I’m not opposed to these beers coexisting with their more bitter forbears, but I hope they don’t replace them altogether. There is one positive development in the dialing down of American beer’s bitterness, however: All things being relative, my favorite imported beer, England’s Coniston Bluebird Bitter, finally tastes like its name again.