Sunday, 5 January 2014
Clouding the Issue
This article is intended as a follow up to a couple of previous posts; one published by Ghost Drinker, back in May last year. The other published a few days ago by Tandleman. Both were about the vexed subject of cloudy beer, and both made the point, very eloquently, about the confusion arising from the actions of a small, but increasing number of brewers who see beer that is intentionally cloudy, as the way forward. I want to continue exploring the issues raised by the actions of these brewers, and look further at whether cloudy beer in general is good or bad for the brewing industry and the drinking public.
As a long standing CAMRA member I’m more than a little concerned over the issue of the cloudy pint and recent moves to present it as something we should all welcome and indeed embrace. This is especially true when the cloudiness relates to cask-conditioned beer. With the experience of over 40 years spent drinking the stuff I know what I like, and also what I dislike, and whilst I’m always willing to give new beers and new concepts in brewing a try, I’m more than a little sceptical about some of the motives behind recent developments.
Let me kick off by saying I don’t have a problem with cloudy beer, if it’s supposed to be cloudy, as with un-filtered Zwickelbier/Naturtrüb/Kellerbier in Germany and Nefiltrovaný in the Czech Republic – as these beers are advertised as being naturally cloudy, I do have a problem when as a customer I am not told, or otherwise informed that the beer is meant to be cloudy.
I experienced this for myself one Saturday evening, last spring, at a pub in Tunbridge Wells. The place was packed, as there was a mini-beer festival taking place. There was also a live band playing, so it wasn't particularly easy to make oneself heard, or hear what was being said. I was standing with a friend at the bar; he ordered one beer, whilst I ordered a pint of Notting Hill Amber Ale from Moncada Brewery. It came up cloudy, not soup-like but still cloudy. It didn't look like a chill haze, but given the situation I’ve just described I was going to give it a try first and see what it tasted like, before deciding to ask for it to be changed.
My friend had other ideas, and after managing to attract the barmaid's attention, pointed out my cloudy pint. She queried it with the landlady, who after muttering under her breath that there was nothing wrong with the beer, and that it was supposed to look like that, changed my pint for something else. She also turned the pump-clip round, (full marks for that).
I didn't think much more about the incident until the following day, when I looked on Mocada's website and saw that their beers are purposely un-fined. There was quite a lengthy explanation about the benefits of not using finings. Now I can accept this, and the next time I come across one of their beers I know what to expect. However, I didn't know this at the time, but I assume the landlady might have done. Given how busy the pub was I can forgive her for not being able to explain the beer was un-fined. I can also understand that not many punters would even know what finings are, or what they do. What I cannot forgive is there being no warning or indication from the brewery, preferably at point of sale, informing me, and other drinkers, that the beer was un-fined and would therefore look hazy.
The situation could have ended up far worse than it did, all because of a lack of information. If breweries want to sell un-fined beer and I respect both their right and reasoning for doing so, for heaven's sake please tell us at point of sale! Don't expect us to have to find this out by looking on the company website after returning what was probably a perfectly acceptable pint. This is bad for the brewery, bad for the publican, bad for the customer and bad for the image of cask beer.
Of course a cloudy or hazy looking glass of beer is not something which is unique to Britain. Our visit to Prague at the beginning of last month, revealed that unfiltered lager was definitely the “in thing”, with some of the big names in Czech brewing, such as Gambrinus, and Staropramen getting in on the act. Like most people I drink with my eyes, as for me the visual aesthetic appeal of a beer is an important one. I do find the sight of a cloudy glass of beer slightly off-putting. I accept this may be down to years of conditioning which tells me there is something not quite right about a hazy looking glass of beer, but whilst in the Czech capital I was able to carry out a side by side tasting between the unfiltered and filtered Staropramen. The restaurant attached to our hotel, sold both types. I was drinking the unfiltered version, whilst my son opted for the filtered. The former was definitely superior in taste, but in terms of appearance, the normal filtered version won hands down. I know this was drinking with one’s eyes, but the visual appeal of a glass of beer are important, otherwise one might just as well swig the stuff straight out of a bottle!
Unfiltered lagers are also increasingly common in Germany, with Zwickelbier or Naturtrüb available in many pubs and bars. Both types of beer are naturally hazy, and whilst they taste good they do not look particularly attractive when served up in a standard glass. The slightly off-putting visual aspect of a cloudy beer is not a problem in places like Franconia, where the local unfiltered Kellerbier is invariably served in a ceramic, earthenware mug. This of course, masks any cloudiness within the beer, but completely loses any visual appeal it might have, especially with regard to what colour it might be.
There are now several breweries in the UK that purposely plump for murky un-fined beer, as they feel it not only will be fresher, but will also appeal to the vegetarian/vegan market. They pose the question “do you really want dissolved fish-guts in your beer?” This, I feel is a somewhat disingenuous question, as whilst isinglass finings are indeed derived from the swim-bladders of certain fish, they are not exactly fish-guts. Isinglass is a form of collagen and the swim-bladders from which it is derived undergoes a lengthy process of being slowly dissolved in acid before it is in a form that is capable of clearing beer. Finings work by flocculating the live yeast in the beer into a jelly-like mass, which settles to the bottom of the cask. Left undisturbed, beer will clear naturally; the use of isinglass finings just accelerates the process. This is particularly important these days as most publicans expect a quick turn around on beers and will be disappointed if the beer hasn’t dropped bright within a day or so.
Finings though are not normally drunk, although if one is given a pint which hasn’t cleared properly there is the possibility of consuming a small amount of isinglass. Even so, this is not going to hurt anyone, and to say that people are drinking “dissolved fish-guts” in their beer is rather misleading to say the least.
The increasing availability of un-fined, or otherwise deliberately cloudy beer, is causing a major headache for consumer champion, CAMRA. Having spent the past four decades campaigning not only for the increasing availability of cask-conditioned beer, but for higher standards of cellarmanship and presentation of the finished product, the campaign is not best pleased by the appearance of these beers which, if you’ll forgive the pun, cloud and increasingly complicate the issue of what constitutes a good pint.
Up until now, when a customer is handed a pint of hazy or murky looking beer, unless it is the end of a cask and the bar person simply hasn’t noticed, it is normally the sign of a lazy or incompetent licensee; someone who can’t be bothered to take that extra bit of time and trouble to look after the beer properly. Upon questioning a hazy pint in such an establishment, the stock response will inevitably be, “Well it’s real ale, it’s supposed to be cloudy.” No it isn’t meant to be cloudy. The brewer who brewed this beer put a lot of time and effort into coming up with a beer which looks visually stunning. That’s why it’s served in a brilliantly clear, and clean, glass and not in a pewter tankard or a ceramic mug. The reason the beer is cloudy is because the licensee is an incompetent, lazy and often ignorant, arse!
Now, with the advent of un-fined or deliberately hazy-looking beers, our ignoramus behind the bar can say, in certain cases at least, “It’s supposed to look like that.” In situations like this when beer enthusiasts, like myself, are presented with a cloudy pint, there is often no way of knowing whether the person behind the bar is telling the truth or not, especially without prior knowledge of the beer, or some form of indication at point of sale that it is supposed to be hazy. If we don't know then what hope is there that the average person in the street will know either? An unscrupulous publican could pass off virtually any cloudy, hazy or otherwise unfit for sale pint of “real ale” using the old chestnut of “Well it’s supposed to be cloudy”, thereby un-doing decades of hard work by CAMRA and others. No wonder the campaign is extremely concerned about this.
I've bought too many pints from new breweries, over the past couple of years, where I don't know if it's yeast, hops, protein or wheat in my beer making it opaque. I am a beer enthusiast; most beer drinkers are not, so breweries it's up to you at the end of the day how you want to play this. If you want people to think your carefully crafted, über-hopped, Belgian IPA is at the end of the barrel, rather than supposed to look naturally hazy, then for pity’s sake do something about it and tell people! It really is up to you and NOT organisations such as CAMRA to do this, and it needs doing soon! Otherwise not only will you be undoing all the good work, unwittingly or otherwise, which said organisations have done over the years, but you will also be doing a grave disservice to all decent, honest and hardworking licensees, beer lovers and the world of brewing in general. The ball is in your court!