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!


Phil said...

Great minds think alike!

What's even worse (as I said in my post) is when beer that's supposed to be cloudy (as in unfined) is served cloudy (as in not fully settled, or defective in some other way). I'm sure the pint I had last night was 'wrong', but the only visual sign of its wrongness was being cloudy - and it was meant to be cloudy.

Brewing beer to be served cloudy (or to be served sour) doesn't make a bad pint more likely, but it does make a bad pint much harder to spot (and easier for an unscrupulous or hard-pressed barman to pass of as OK).

Paul Bailey said...

Thanks for the back link to your blog, Phil. An excellent post, and one I am in complete agreement with. Mavericks within the brewing industry are all well and good; so is pushing the envelope to a point. However, when the "weirdness" becomes weirdness just for the sake of it, and when it confuses the hell out of beer enthusiasts, what the hell is it doing for the image and standing of our favourite drink in the minds of the public at large?

Drinking beer should be a pleasant experience rather an unwelcome assault on the senses. Definitely time to say enough is enough!

Curmudgeon said...

Completely agreed - I've posted on this before here.

If your beer is meant to be hazy, or potentially hazy, then make it clear on the pumpclip so people know what they're getting and can make an informed decision. If it isn't, then haze is indicative of a brewing or cellaring fault.

As I said, "There is a real risk of undoing twenty years of promoting good cellar practice and putting a whole new generation off cask beer."

Tandleman said...

Paul: Got to agree with all this. The backlash is building momentum. It does make me worry about some people's taste buds and beer knowledge though when so much murk is consumed so eagerly.

I do think a motion to CAMRA's AGM is coming from me.

Curmudgeon said...

It'll encounter a massive wall of rejection if it tries to escape into the mainstream, though. Maybe another way of setting the crafterati apart from the ignorami? ;-)

A motion on the subject should certainly liven up the AGM.

Paul Bailey said...

Curmudgeon, I see your post back in March 2012 caused quite a bit of controversy at the time. I also see that I commented on it as well, but only to say that beers can drop bright without the use of finings, but the process takes a lot longer.

This is something the likes of Moor, Black Isle, Summer Wine et al don’t seem to get. Today’s’ publicans just can’t afford the luxury of keeping casks of beer in their cellars, for several weeks at a time. This may have been the case forty or fifty years ago, when beer underwent a much longer period of maturation and conditioning in the cellar than it does today, but in the 21st Century, licensees expect casks to drop “bright” overnight. Un-fined beer therefore has no chance of clearing over this short period, so why bother, and why all the hype?

As a scientist I just don’t buy into this nonsense that “Finings “strip out” desirable flavours along with the yeast.” If this is the case, show me the evidence; and no, “gut feelings”, anecdotal reports and touchy-feely hearsay do not constitute proof in any shape or form.

Tandleman, I won’t repeat your comment about the waving of a certain appendage, peculiar to males, but there does appear a real perversity amongst some of these “new age” brewers which really does border on intellectual snobbery. To swim against the tide in this fashion, by attempting to undo 150 years public acceptance of and preference for clear beer to my mind is commercial suicide. As Curmudgeon rightly says, “It’ll encounter a massive wall of rejection if it tries to escape into the mainstream.”

The trouble is though, as all three of us, and others, have commented, hazy beer runs a real risk of undoing several decades of promoting good cellar practice thereby putting a whole new generation off cask beer. This would be in nobody’s interest, whether you’re a craft or a cask brewer, and nowhere would this fit in with the aims of even the most maverick of “new age” brewers, which surely must be to raise the public profile of good beer.

Ps. I’m not sure yet if I’ll be able to make it to Scarborough, but I’m certain there would be a lot of support for an AGM motion on this topic.

Tandleman said...

My thinking cap is on but your point about undoing things is well made.

DaveS said...

"It does make me worry about some people's taste buds and beer knowledge though when so much murk is consumed so eagerly."

Slightly confused by your point here - surely if the beer people are drinking is intentionally hazy, well kept and tastes great then their tastebuds are functioning just fine? I don't think even the most perverse hipsters are enthusing about "off" beer...

Assuming that your position isn't just a kneejerk "ewww it's cloudy, how gross", what you're worrying about is presumably the possibility that beers that are fine in isolation might have a negative impact on beer culture as a whole?

To be honest, I'm still quite sceptical about the latter point, largely because as far as I can tell unfined beer is (and will probably remain) a fairly niche interest, and you have to be fairly well engaged in the beer-geek bubble to even be aware of it as a concept, so its impact on what the general public think beer should look like seems likely to be pretty minimal.

The idea of suggesting that people clearly label hazy or cloudy beer - a little symbol you can stick on a pump clip, say - seems entirely sensible, although if anything I'd expect it to work in favour of people promoting unfined beer, because publicans would be less worried about punters thinking it was off. Other than that, I'm not sure what CAMRA could do that would, erm, clarify the situation - a motion that just generically says "down with this sort of thing" would probably achieve very little apart from alienating a few brewers and drinkers and probably causing Brewdog to announce that all their beers are going to be unfined from now on.

Paul Bailey said...

Dave S - just to respond to your comment "You have to be fairly well engaged in the beer-geek bubble to even be aware of it (un-fined beer) as a concept, so its impact on what the general public think beer should look like seems likely to be pretty minimal."

My first encounter with un-fined beer was the one I referred to in my post. It happened at a pub in Tunbridge Wells which, whilst supporting small independent brewers, in no way could be described as being within the "beer-geek bubble". The pub was hosting a beer festival showcasing beers from London Brewers. Un-fined Moncada beer was on sale and whilst I probably would still have drunk it, had my friend not made such a fuss at the bar, I was totally unaware that the beer could be hazy, due to lack of finings.

This backs up the point I am making, namely un-fined beer IS making its way out of the "craft-beer bubble" and appearing in mainstream pubs. The pub's landlady was sufficiently concerned about the beer's cloudy appearance, and the effect it could have on other customers, to take it off sale. This was even though, as it later transpired, she knew it was un-fined, and therefore quite likely to be cloudy.

The "escape", if you like, of this type of beer into the more mainstream market will cause all sorts of confusion. It certainly did in Tunbridge Wells last spring. I am the last one to tell brewers to stop being innovative and experimental, but if they are going to do this sort of thing then they need to explain to the drinking public what they are doing, why the are doing it and what they are trying to achieve.

DavidS said...

"If they are going to do this sort of thing then they need to explain to the drinking public what they are doing, why the are doing it and what they are trying to achieve."

Okay, no argument with that. I guess you're talking about changing the message from "actually, some beers are meant to be cloudy" to "most beers still aren't meant to be cloudy but this one is."

Paul Bailey said...

DavidS - "most beers still aren't meant to be cloudy but this one is." In a nutshell, yes. But then go on to explain the perceived benefits of cloudy/hazy beer, (fresher, tastier, suitable for vegetarians/vegans etc).

I did try and put across in the article, that I don't have a problem with cloudy beer. I've drunk enough Zwickelbier, Kellerbier, Naturtrüb and Nefiltrované pivo in my time and in the main I've found them very enjoyable.

Most of these types of beer are sold to their respective markets on the "fresher, tastier, healthier" principle, and if UK-based brewers want to to the same with their un-fined or un-filtered beers, then this would be a good thing.

The one main difference with these continental variants, is there is no half-way house, as in the case of cask-conditioned beer. Lager-style beers (and by that I mean a whole range of bottom-fermented beers), are either filtered (and thus brilliantly clear), or they are not; and will thus have varying degrees of haziness depending on the degree of filtration.

Cask ale is meant to be clear, but it can be cloudy if it is served too soon or, when it is nearing the end of the cask. Both these defects are caused by poor cellar practice, and result in beer being served in a condition which was not intended by the brewer. This is the crux of the argument; the condition in which cask ale can be served, depends on the way it is handled at the pub. This doesn't apply in the case of Nefiltrované pivo, Zwickelbier etc. It's condition, appearance etc is pre-set by the brewer, and can't, or shouldn't, be messed up by careless handling at the pub/bar.

What we don't want happening in the UK is careless publicans using the "It's meant to be cloudy", excuse for serving a murky pint of something that clearly isn't meant to be that way.

Curmudgeon said...

I've created a poll here specifically on the question of whether customers should be informed at the point of sale if draught beer (whether cask or keg) is intentionally cloudy or hazy.

If you'd like to run this on your blog as well drop me a line and I'll send you the HTML.

Paul Bailey said...

Thanks for the offer about running the poll, Curmudgeon, but I'll leave that sort of thing to yourself and others. I know polls can sometimes be fun, but I've always been a bit sceptical as to whether or not the results actually mean anything.