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Desperately seeking clarity on clarity

Murky or unfiltered? Hazy or flavorful? Let taste be our guide in sorting through the clear beer question.
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Photo by Jess Suworoff for DRAFT

Photo by Jess Suworoff for DRAFT

There is haze; there are clouds; there is murk… and then there is the opaqueness with which casual drinkers must view the issue of beer clarity. Is my beer supposed to look this clear/hazy/muddy? Do I like it that way?

A beer’s appearance is only one way to judge it. Marketers think it’s the most important, since we first drink with our eyes when deciding what to buy. Most drinkers would say it’s one of the least important criteria—somewhere after Is it tasty?, How strong is it? and What does it cost?

Clarity is the most obvious and immediate—but far from the most reliable—way to judge beer quality. And quality is an issue that has been worrying the people who sell it for a living. It should worry us too: Our time and money are precious.

As the number of upstart breweries continues to explode—there may be 4,000 in the United States by the end of 2015, double the number four years ago, which is absolutely nuts if you think about it—it only makes sense that quality would be at risk. At the annual Craft Brewers Conference, brewers hear the preaching to the choir: quality, quality, quality. They must preach it, because they know that some percentage of newcomers either (a) do not have much technical know-how, (b) think they’re going to cash in on a fast-growing market, (c) are in this to get laid, or (d) are any combination of the above. Such people are not typically driven by that finest of internal compasses, I know exactly what I like to drink and need to make it just so.

Meanwhile, variety proliferates. Brewers are under pressure to brew novelty after novelty, not necessarily having the time they’d like to hone and perfect the flagships.

So inevitably there is more bad beer out there than there used to be. And some of that beer, frankly, is just plain ugly. But what’s “ugly” mean in this context, anyway? That’s up to us.

In London, they have watched this global scenario play out in a microcosm. Neighborhood breweries there have multiplied rapidly, and bright beer has become an old-fashioned luxury—prompting coinage of the phrase “London murky” to describe the muddy glasses of novelty beers that can be found more often at the city’s newer, hipper breweries and bars. Some use the phrase in derision. Others seem to like the stuff.

Britain has no monopoly on that phenomenon. I have seen and tasted the same sort of murk in the U.S., Latin America, and across Europe. Sometimes it’s intentional, sometimes not. And sometimes I think the brewers just don’t care; people are obviously buying the stuff anyway.

That’s where we come in. Voting for good beer with our hard-earned duckets ought to be a simple equation. But it’s not that simple these days, is it? Our endless thirst for variety has upset the natural order of things. If rotating tap lists and new releases are any indication, we’re always looking to try something new. And if we’re always looking to try something new, then our vote doesn’t tell them anything at all. It looks to brewers as if we’ll drink anything once (often at any price). Next week, on to some other rushed-out, untested recipe that may or may not have had time to drop bright. But who cares, it’s new, right? Wheeeeee!

We can do better as consumers. We can vote more intelligently, and we’ll drink better stuff because of it. But the clarity issue is not, er, a clear one. There’s a lot to consider:

● Our past experience shapes our view of each beer. If we taste lots of murky beers that happen to be delicious, then dammit, it will probably start to look beautiful.
● But most of them are not delicious. Sometimes—when made well—those thick clouds are living yeast and proteins that add up to an old-fashioned, tasty, nourishing drink with body, and none of the flavor stripped out by fining or filtering.
● Yea, but more often it turns out to be some not-so-tasty dead yeast and hop sediment in suspension — tongue-coatingly bitter, vegetal, rubbery stuff. Nasty.
● This is important: Clear/murky is not black/white, either/or. There is a whole spectrum from crystal clear to downright muddy via haze and clouds. Lately I’ve been obsessed with unfiltered lagers of all sorts, which often strike me as reassuringly hazy, because generally I’ve liked them better than the clear ones. Let your own experience be your guide.
● Dry-hopping and bottle-conditioning are two other things—good things!—that can add haze to a beer. But neither should make it opaque.
● Some beers are supposed to be cloudy, like German hefeweizen and Belgian wit. Yet we don’t want to live in a world where only a few types of beers are allowed to be that way. Those beers earned their protected status by tasting good. Expect no less from your local brewer.
● Over-fetishizing clarity encourages filtering and fining, when there is a lot to be said for natural, unfiltered, “living” beer if made well. Ah, but there is the trick.
● Many brewers like to filter their beer, or else centrifuge all the stuff out of it, even though it does strip the beer of character. Forgive them; they learn it in school. Many believe they can compensate for what is lost by adding more ingredients on the front end. But different methods lead to different destinations. It’s up to us to decide whether we like the endpoint.

Ultimately, our own taste is the arbiter. Trust your judgment: If it doesn’t look like it tastes good, it might not. Buyer beware. And if some novelty factory sells you a glass of murk that tastes as bad as it looks, a humble suggestion: Don’t let them fool you twice.

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