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What do clouds (in beer) taste like?

Like heaven, earth, hell or dogmatism? Only one way to find out.
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Instagram_20150810_018 (1)Someone’s just poured you a fresh beer, and it arrives cloudy. What’s your gut feeling on that? Is that nubilous appearance a good thing or bad?

Some might say it depends on the beer style. Some are “supposed” to be cloudy, goes this line of thinking, and some are not. But I don’t care for dogma in an age when brewers are stretching creative legs and sprinting past old notions. My free time is not a homebrew competition. Be a beer judge, if you want. But at home or bar, I’m a hedonist. How does it taste? Do I like it that way?

Others might say that whether the clouds are good or bad—whether they are “supposed to be there”—depends on the brewer’s intent … whatever that is. I have problems with that idea, too. First of all, the brewer’s intent is not always clear. (Ha!) How would a typical drinker know that anyway? Secondly, I’m not convinced that brewers always know what their own intent is, when it comes to clarity. We might be giving them too much credit, especially when they’re under growing pressure to constantly brew new recipes to satisfy our apparently heedless thirst for variety.

And what does the brewer’s intent matter, anyway, if you don’t care for the product? Your intent is more important. As in, do you intend to have another?

But we were talking about clouds. Or more broadly, I’m interested in an obvious lack of clarity: What does that taste like, compared to a bright, clear, polished version of the same beer?

Lately I’ve been scrabbling in an obsessive little rabbit hole—or is this just my navel? hear the echo?—in contemplating the flavor of that stuff suspended in our beer. I think that’s ultimately what will determine how we feel about clouds and clarity: How do they affect the taste, beyond pure aesthetics?

Because ultimately it’s our past experiences with hazy, cloudy or even murky beers — positive or negative — that color how we’ll feel about the next one.

Or, we might be colored by what we hear or read from experts. “Since ancient times, people have praised the virtues of luminously clear beer,” writes Randy Mosher in his book “Tasting Beer.” “Today, clarity is a desirable aspect of almost all beer styles regardless of their origin.” He goes on to note four “important exceptions,” the first three of them being unfiltered wheat beers: hefeweizen, Berliner weisse, witbier and kellerbier.

In a general, crib-notes sort of way, he is correct. (He usually is.) But it reminds of me a bit of the Pritchard Scale from “Dead Poets Society.” I’m uncomfortable with the training-wheels version of the clarity story. If it’s desirable (or tolerated) for those beers, why not others?

There is only one acceptable reason, either way: pleasure.

The books and experts will tell us various reasons for the clouds—yeast in suspension; chill haze, which is temporary and comes from malt proteins; starch haze from cereals, in some old-timey beers; hop debris, possibly after dry-hopping—and many are happy to tell us if we should think they are Good or Bad.

Invariably they imply that these factors add character, but that comes at a Terrible Cost (gasp!), or what Mosher calls the “cosmetic downside.” In other words, brewers fear that you drink with your eyes, instead of your mouth, and that won’t think their beers are pretty unless they filter it, or else heavily centrifuge it. It amounts to the same: taking flavor out of the beer (was that flavor good or bad?). The other day I saw a Belgian beer that claimed to be moitié-filtré—half-filtered. Cute! Still means filtered.

The thing that first sent me down this rabbit hole was a comment from Irish blogger John Duffy, better known as The Beer Nut. (Go read his blog, if you don’t already know it, for a lesson in how beer reviews can be both useful and fun to read.) I have great respect for this man’s palate, so I was taken aback when he picked at one my favorite beers—Brasserie de la Senne’s Zinnebir—as having “yeast grit” that muddled its hop character. See our exchange here:

Well, maybe I like that grit, even if I wouldn’t have used that word. I’ve poured Zinnebir from its bottle all sorts of ways: reserving the yeast at the bottom, with the yeast dumped in, and sometimes chugging that bit of yeast in the bottle afterward. It’s a bitter, bright, spicy-hopped and earthy beer, with that bit of yeast giving you some control over that earthy bit. I don’t mind … until a poorly handled keg—Zinnebir undergoes an additional fermentation in the barrel—spits up a murky glass, and the bartender acts like it’s supposed to be that way. But what’s that stuff taste like? To me: earthy, spicy, zesty—any of those, or any combination thereof. It depends. It’s not just yeast in there—there can be proteins, fats and residual hop debris. Mosher says that stuff in the bottle can contribute a “muddy” taste. I know what he means, but “earthy” sounds better.

When I pressed Duffy further on this question, he mentioned a “savory” quality. I notice this umami taste sometimes. Not often. It’s usually unpleasant. This is what brewers call “yeast bite,” a result of something called autolysis, caused by dead yeast breaking down into fatty acids and other things. With fresh beer and properly managed fermentation, it shouldn’t be an issue. That has nothing to do with a beer style or a certain brewer’s intent. That’s just poor brewing or poor handling. Not every cloudy beer tastes like that. The good ones don’t. One way to guess is if the stuff looks more like mud than clouds.

But the spectrum of bright to hazy to cloudy to murk is fairly subjective. In London—as in the U.S.—growing numbers of new breweries have some people worried that quality could suffer. A few tweeters have been using the hashtag #murkshaming to call out beers that arrive looking rather opaque … in theory. The problem is that some of them just look hazy, or a bit cloudy, and tell me nothing about how good or bad the beer might be. No doubt poor photography compounds the lack of, er, clarity.

I’ll admit some bias here. Unfiltered wheat beers—German, Belgian or Kansas City-brewed—were an important gateway for me to the wider world of special beers. Later I became infatuated with the bottle-conditioned ales of Belgium, especially saisons, and the rustic, unfiltered lagers of German Franconia. So my hackles rise a bit when people imply that anything less than crystal-clarity is a sign of amateurish brewing. It certainly could be. It could also be a sign of a brewer who wanted to do something rustic, natural or old-fashioned.

But the brewer’s technical acumen and intentions are really beside the point. There’s only one way to find out whether it’s worth your time, and that’s to drink it.

 

Author
Joe Stange is the author of Around Brussels in 80 Beers and co-author of Good Beer Guide Belgium. Follow him on Twitter @Thirsty_Pilgrim.

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