No clear consensus on cloudy beer

Adsultim_sixpack_1200
2nd Story Brewing’s Adsultim Imperial IPA.

Appearance: Should be clear, although unfiltered dry-hopped versions may be a bit hazy.
- From the Beer Judge Certification Program style guidelines for American IPA

A bit hazy?

That might be the traditional standard. But these days, some of America's top-rated India pale ales are as overcast as the airspace above South Philly's oil refinery on an August afternoon.

Murky, cloudy, and even milk-like are some of the descriptors for the likes of Lawson's Finest Liquids Sip of Sunshine, Trillium Dialed-In, and the Alchemist Heady Topper, all popular IPAs made in New England, where the trend began. Swimming with floaties, the ales are uniquely fruity, even juicy; think Tropicana Pure Premium with none of the pulp removed.

With names like Turbid Nightmare, Milkshake IPA, and just plain Haze, American craft brewers are flying into the cumulus. Not surprisingly, the flight plan has produced a bit of turbulence.

Before I plunge in, here's a quick disclaimer: Some beer, notably German hefeweizen and Belgian witbier, is supposed to be cloudy. All of that unfiltered muck (yeast and various proteins) enhances its unique flavor.

Otherwise, clarity has been one of the hallmarks of beer-making expertise since we stopped drinking out of metal tankards. Just google "hazy beer," and mostly you'll be directed to perfectly intelligent advice on how to cure it.

Usually, it's blamed on poor brewing techniques: overaggressive boiling of wort, poorly performing yeast, and incomplete fining (adding clarifying agents to the beer). At best, it looks like the dregs from the bottom of a keg; at worst, it might be evidence of a biological infection.

Whatever, haze is often a sign that something is wrong - maybe spit-on-the-floor wrong - with your beer.

Or so you'd think.

"That's not necessarily a fact," said John Wible, head brewer at Old City's 2nd Story Brewing. "It's foolish to say that every hazy beer is a poorly brewed beer."

The murkiness of his Adsultim Imperial IPA, he said, is the result of aggressive dry-hopping, the addition of hops after fermentation to enhance aroma without adding bitterness.

"We could certainly remove the hops [sediment] by filtering or fining," said Wible, who defended hazy beer in a much-shared blog post. "But in doing so, it obviously changes the look and it changes the texture. I prefer it to be left in there because removing it changes the beer ...

"I don't need the clarity. I don't want the clarity."

This is heresy in some circles, especially those inhabited by home brewers. To many of them, hazy beer is sloppy, careless, even lazy.

"Appearance is the first sign of what your beer is all about," said Jason Petros, a longtime California home brewer and cohost of "The Session" podcast on the Brewing Network who has engaged in a few Twitter battles over hazy beer.

"A hazy beer reminds me too much of bad home brew, of muddled flavors," he said. "If I see haze, I'm a bit worried about what's about to hit my palate."

Indeed, hazy beer is often unstable and susceptible to off-flavors, with a shelf life measured in days, not weeks. Yet, I've heard some fans of hazy beer say it's better because it's "unprocessed." It's honest and pure and unadulterated, like unpasteurized cheese or fixed-gear bikes.

That's nonsense, of course - especially as some of those clouds may be artificial. Brewers have been known to add tasteless wheat flour or a yeast substance known as Biocloud just to perk up the murk.

And then there's the matter of aesthetics. Compared to most well-made beer, it just looks dirty. Said Petros: "Go ask a chef how much appearance means to his food."

It's a fair observation, especially as hundreds of new, inexperienced beer makers have opened their own small, commercial breweries in the last couple of years. Maybe their beer is cloudy because they haven't mastered the fundamentals.

But it's also the same criticism classically trained musicians once laid on jazz improvisation. So maybe what we're seeing is the birth of a new style.

After all, it wasn't so long ago that overly bitter ales and sour beers were dismissed by traditionalists as "bad." Today, one-dimensional hop-focused "session" IPAs and mouth-puckering German-style goses are best-sellers.

So dive into the fog, fellow beer drinkers. Instagram your goblets of goo. Haze is the next phase.

"Joe Sixpack" is written by Don Russell. For more on the beer scene, download Bar Talk with Glen Macnow and Joe Sixpack, and sign up for his weekly email update at joesixpack.net.

Email: joe@joesixpack.net 

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