The Meaning of Clear Beer

How important it is for beer to be absolutely clear is one of the fault lines between ‘real ale’ culture  and the emerging cult of ‘craft beer’.

It seems fairly obvious to us that the fetishising of clarity is a relatively recent phenomenon arising from a desire among consumers for ‘objective’ indicators of, and simples rules for judging, the quality of the beer they were drinking.

Here’s what brewing scientists Morris and Moritz had to say back in 1891:

Beer nowadays is demanded in absolutely brilliant condition, and however good it may be in other respects, it will be returned to the brewer as unsaleable if it is in the least cloudy or turbid. That such is the case is probably due, first, to the importation into this country of Lager… and to the substitution in public houses… of the old-fashioned mugs by glasses… It is owing to this demand for brilliancy… that clarification is now almost entirely artificially effected.

They go on to distinguish between types of turbidity (cloudiness): (a) from hops, (b) from yeast, (c) as a result of bacteria and (d) resulting from flatness. Were consumers rejecting ‘haze’ outright as an easy way of avoiding C and D?

‘A Drinker’, the author of 1934′s A Book About Beer, was a keen fan of ‘beer from the wood’ and a critic of over-carbonated, filtered bottled beer. He or she also provides an early example of a ‘beer geek’ being accepting of un-clear beer (our emphasis):

The contribution of the eye to the savouring of a beer, however, is not so liable to confusion as the contributions of the other senses. The drink is looked at and the eye determines the clarity and colour. At one time beers were frequently cloudy and they were none the worse for that cloudiness… But to-day bright beer is demanded everywhere and, in consequence, if a beer is cloudy it is more likely to that it has been drawn from the bottom of the cask… [p55]

In other words, cloudy beer could be good in theory, but, because no-one makes intentionally cloudy beer any more, it has become a danger sign.

Eventually, the ability to achieve both absolute clarity and a good head of foam became a sign of technical excellence in brewing, according to Andrew Campbell’s 1956 Book of Beer. But, again, there is an implication that absolute clarity rather belongs, along with artificial carbonation, on the Dark Side. But surely most consumers were simply concerned about avoiding being palmed off with slops, or getting a bad gut. Here’s something from Tom Berkley’s 1955 semi-fictional comic memoir We Keep a Pub:

‘Ere!’ cried a voice. ‘Wot’s this ‘ere?’

‘Just a sec,’ I said.

A burly navvy was holding a mug of ale up to the light.

‘Wot’s this ‘ere?’ he asked again gruffly.

A glance was enough to show me what was wrong. It was some of the ale Mr Grainger had just spoilt. Taking the mug, I emptied it into a drip can, and just to make sure, refilled it and held it up to the light.

‘Hmm — it is cloudy, isn’t it!’ I muttered. I drew off two or three pints and tried again. It was worse.

By that time mugs were being raised in all parts of the room, to a steadily increasing chorus of ‘What’s this ‘ere?’

I hurried to the saloon.

‘Mr Grainger, that mild ale is coming up muddy.’

‘Can’t help it; they got to drink it.’

‘But they won’t.’

What we find interesting in that passage is that the beer apparently tasted OK to most if not all of the punters. Perhaps that first ‘burly navvy’ had a particularly sensitive palate, but the others seem just to follow his lead. Pavlov’s dog? (Or maybe we’re reading too much into a fairly slight bit of entertainment.)

When the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood came along in the 1960s,  they objected furiously to metal casks, kegs, artificial carbonation, filtering and chilling. But, in 1971, their leader, Arthur Millard, went a step further in one interview:

[Keg beer] tastes nasty, it blows you up like a balloon, and it costs too much. In a lot of pubs nowadays, one’s dealing with just automatons behind the bar. They only need an ignoramus with a spanner to stock it and serve it. It’s as clear as a bell: all the young men hold it up and say ‘What’s wrong with this? You can see from here to Hampstead Heath through it.’ The younger generation grow up knowing no different, having been introduced at an early age to the clear stuff with bubbles in it. ['Not a Keg to Stand On', Christopher Ford, Guardian, 6/3/71.]

We’d love to have been able to ask him to clarify and expand upon this point, and to check whether he was accurately quoted. What he seems to be saying is:

  1. That using clarity as a proxy for quality leads to a lack of discernment among customers.
  2. That ‘the clear stuff’ is not as good as the occasionally hazy.

Which brings us up to date: the current enthusiasm for unfined beer among ‘craft beer’ drinkers, and their relatively tolerant attitude to cloudiness if the beer tastes OK, seems to us to be about demonstrating ‘discernment’. It’s a way of saying:

I do not make judgements based on superficialities. I am educated and know the difference between bacterial infection and wholesome goodness. I put flavour first.

The risk, however, is that we simply end up with a new and equally simplistic formula: CLOUDY=GOOD.

‘Ere!’ cried a voice. ‘Wot’s this ‘ere?’

A bearded graphic designer was holding a mug of ale up to the light.

‘It’s clear as a bell. Ain’t it got no hops in it? Ain’t it craft?’

26 thoughts on “The Meaning of Clear Beer”

  1. So, not entirely on topic, but I’d been involved in one or two lively discussions on this topic when I suddenly had a blinding flash of the obvious. Viz: we currently live in a country where some sort of cask beer is standard for most drinking establishments, competently kept cask beer is relatively common, and really good cask beer isn’t hard to find. Part of the reason that we get such polarization on issues like cloudy beer, craft keg etc is that there’s a divide between the worldviews of recent converts and relative youths like me who basically grew up with this and see it as the normal, default state of affairs and as such something that’s unlikely to be disturbed much by a few hipsters with some wacky ideas, and seasoned campaigners, who see what we’ve got now as a hard won victory that’s fragile and liable to revert to Watneys Red Barrel at the least provocation if we don’t continue to defend it zealously against any threat.

    Does that make any sense? Sorry if it’s stating the bleedin obvious or is something that everyone else has been aware of for years, but it was new to me…

  2. There is another element to clarity too, and that is transport. Many microbreweries will use yeast strains that do not flocculate well (i.e. they stay in suspension for a long time). Left at rest, they will settle in the bottle or keg, but jostling will disturb them.

    Larger breweries have filtration facilities, centrifuges and other expensive equipment, that allows them to remove these yeasts, while still retaining their benefit. Smaller breweries or newer breweries will be
    hand bottling and bottle conditioning.

    So beer fans can tolerate clarity issues due to transport or jostling, as a way of supporting a talented, new or local producer. Hence ‘London Murky’.

  3. Its funny, isn’t it. Ultimately the only thing that really matters is how it tastes to the person drinking it, which is entirely subjective. Everything else is irrelevant. Yet we still get geeky busybody types trying to legislate about what is or isn’t a signifier of “good quality” and tell everyone else that the flavour they are enjoying is “a fault” and to enjoy it simply highlights their lack of discernment compared to those in the beardy inner circle.

  4. How a beer looks affects how you taste it.

    And when I see cloudy beer I usually assume something’s gone wrong.

    1. When I buy craft keg, I know that it’s most likely come in a KeyKeg, so if it’s cloudy, it /normally/ wont be an issue. I’m a bit more wary with getting cloudy cask though; far too many crappy hazy pints over the years…

  5. Excellent survey and valuable indeed to collect some opinions “on the ground” from last century, well done!

    I have no issue with people liking beer cloudy, but there should be some way to know in advance if a pint of cask or other beer will be served cloudy after handing over 7-8 dollars the pint in North America or equivalent elsewhere. This is simply because until recently, craft keg beer, which was almost all of it in North America, was, I stress this, always served clear unless it was wheat beer or more latterly saison. E.g. the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale you get in the U.K., isn’t that served clear? All similar (non-cask) craft ale and porter was served like that here until a few years ago.

    So murky is new for us too, in other words, setting aside the special case of cask beer, which I’ll discuss further below.

    What changed it? I don’t know, a few years ago you started to see increasingly chilled fizzy cloudy beer being served, presumably a bastard child of cask beer. One or two breweries on the U.S. West Coast probably started this and it spread from there.

    Cask beer here, on the other hand, usually has always been served quite hazy (there are commendable exceptions), I believe because people misunderstood when they read English cask beer was unfiltered. Most, I’d infer, didn’t go to the U.K. and didn’t see that it was never served turbid, it was unfiltered because there was residual yeast in the cask which formed a cake on the base due to action of finings or by being left to stand a long while. We have had to live with that but it surprised me greatly to see the same thing starting to happen in the U.K.

    In my reading of the English beer authorities, they almost always insisted on clear beer. Frank Faulkner, in his 1888 text on Modern Brewing Theory and Practice, states that “semi-cloudiness” “interferes with the delicate flavour” of beer especially moderate gravity beer – which is most of it today.

    The Moritz quotation indicates some people apparently thought otherwise. I can’t gainsay that but the vast majority of technical and popular writers I’ve read said beer should be clear. George Watkins in his 1770′s brewing text states that a fermentation completed in cask after racking should be “fine and clear”. A thousand similar statements can be found or inferred from the later 1700′s and 1800′s. Many writers said one of the reasons for long aging was just for this purpose. It can’t have been aesthetic only, especially when as Moritz said non-glass containers were used – the reason had to be palate and I think this was simply taken for granted although Faulkner out and out gave the rationale for once.

    Another thing is of course the difficulty to know what degree of clarity was acceptable. No real ale, even fined, is truly bright, i.e., by the standards of fine mechanical filtration. A very slight haze is and always probably was okay. And sometimes yes it is from dry hops or a little protein and not yeast.

    But the kind of murky you see today is much more turbid than that and IMO risks having the yeast dominate all the other flavours.

    Finally, ideal and reality must be distinguished. Clearly there were some times, whether from technical failures or other reasons, when beer could not be clarified to the standard. It is still alcohol, so people drank it. bUt it doesn’t mean they preferred it that way. In those 1930′s Beer is Best generic ads, the beer is always shown as limpid…

    Gary

  6. They go on to distinguish between types of turbidity (cloudiness): (a) from hops, (b) from yeast, (c) as a result of bacteria and (d) resulting from flatness. Were consumers rejecting ‘haze’ outright as an easy way of avoiding C and D?

    I don’t know about drinkers then, but this drinker is rejecting haze as a way of avoiding B as well as C and D – unless the yeast in question was in the bottom of the bottle and I’ve tipped it in myself. I don’t want to taste yeast in a cask beer.

  7. On a related point, It’s interesting how many brewpubs on Germany go for this “Naturtrüb” angle, putting a positive spin on the fact they can’t achieve the clarity of their bigger brothers.

    1. At the end of the day, when people talk about cloud/haze/whatever it’s almost always a proxy for something. Back when ‘real ale’ was still associated with ‘beer with twigs in’, I would have positively welcomed the sight of cloudy beer, because (like the SPBW guy) I would have assumed it was more ‘traditional’ – and hence better, or at least more interesting – than all this modern stuff that you can see through. So ‘cloud’ was a proxy for worries about losing the character of beer through excessive quality control. (If I was in Germany I’d probably think something similar.)

      Conversely, these days I avoid cloudy beer because there’s too high a chance of the cloud being the result of yeast which shouldn’t be there (see Richard’s comment). In other words, ‘cloud’ is a proxy for worries about inadequate quality control, and a scene which (arguably) puts up with too much of it.

    2. Many German drinkers appear to believe for no particular reason that wheat beer is healthier that bottom-fermented beers, possibly due to the cloudiness. I have even heard someone explain that he drank whear beer because it was lower in alcohol than Pils (in fact, it is usually slightly higher).

  8. Having a quite cloudy quite well made fresh Ontario IPA right now. Only missing the nod to diacytel. In a hefe glass, too!

  9. This is a really good post and a really good discussion. While it is interesting to note what was said about cloudy beer in 1891, one must remember that adulteration of beer in the years preceding that was hardly unknown and in all likelihood had some influence on clear beer as being viewed as something that was unlikely to have been tampered with by the brewer, the middleman, or indeed the publican.

    Nor is it good enough to dismiss the effect of item b) yeast in beer which is responsible for many things including a sharp yeast bite, which most drinkers find unpleasant. Yeast is a very unpleasant taste as anyone who has “enjoyed” a shot of it in the De Koninck brewery tap or dipped his finger into the yeast head on fermenting beer, will readily confirm.

    As Ed says, the idea that beer just looks better should not be overlooked either and nor should the effect of cloudiness in the balance of beer, though of course it could be argued with some justification, that delicateness is not something the London Murky crew aims for.

    I am much persuaded by the simple common sense of what DaveS, Richard, Gary and Phil say (not least of all I admit because they support my own view) though I do wonder why so many new London brewers use non flocculating yeasts, though I suspect three things. The first is that it makes them bang on trend, the second that it disguising their lack of brewing skills in some cases and the third, related to the first is that they sell largely to an audience that expects that sharp, yeasty flavour overlaid with a mass of big C hops. There is nothing wrong with this though, except where it strays into the area of “normal” cask beer, where it clashes with the perceived norm and causes confusion.

    In the case of German brewpubs, I think you (B&B) know as well as I do that the reason they promote it as healthy is to disguise how poor it is. German brew pubs don’t produce much other than worse versions of what the larger commercial breweries produce. The reasons are largely that of equipment and storage cost.

    You (B&B again) are right in your final observation, when turning this quote on its head and together with your anecdote, you reverse things.:

    “That using clarity as a proxy for quality leads to a lack of discernment among customers.

    That ‘the clear stuff’ is not as good as the occasionally hazy.”

    In this case, I rather doubt if your SPBW man was saying other than the pin bright keg isn’t as good as the naturally conditioned cask.

    I agree with Phil when he says “Conversely, these days I avoid cloudy beer because there’s too high a chance of the cloud being the result of yeast which shouldn’t be there (see Richard’s comment). In other words, ‘cloud’ is a proxy for worries about inadequate quality control, and a scene which (arguably) puts up with too much of it.”

    py of course makes his usual somewhat peevy point about how us oldies just don’t “get” what is going on. I rather think though, it is exactly because we do get it, that he is wrong. As another observation, it is a largely London based trend and the ones drinking it are likely to be the beards. Discernment like beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but we shouldn’t forget this is a minor aberration which is largely confined to London produced beer. Given how bad beer has been there in the past, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, nor given the re-emergence of London brewing should we be taken aback that they want to be different. London Murky may well become a London style and be admired as such.

    Maybe that’s fine, but various polls have concluded that beery bods would like to be advised about whether a beer is meant to be served cloudy and while a bit of haze is fine, keep murk to kegs and bottles please. That’s where it might be expected and justified in terms of audience.

    Don’t muddy our cask waters.

  10. This is interesting. We each are nostalgic or defensive about our favorite era and award it a gold star. CAMRA picks a point in time somewhere second quarter 1900s and a technique just as much as the current UK craft set does with its intentions. Me, I am quite taken by Victorian recreations, clear or not, as well as hazy thicker US IPA or even lovely turbid hefeweizens. Each should have its place as well as its supporters as long as the beer is well made and well priced.

  11. In my case, I don’t want I simply don’t think the idea of turbidity suits ordinary “supping cask beer”. Hefeweizen is a different case altogetherr.

  12. Quite true but SCB is a discrete form of beer even if with is own charms. It need not judge or be judged according to standards appropriate to each class. Right now, I am quite interested in Hudson’s Bay brewing 1670-1780 ish and just realized I am seeing ale brewing as well as hopped beer up there in the Arctic. I am sure none of it was clear but it would have been quite welcome to those poor bastards on civilization’s frozen edge.

  13. Its called London Murky because it is what is served in the multiple craft beer bars of London, not because its brewed in London.

    I have had plenty of delicious murky pints from New Wave brewers from all over the country. If its fresh and hoppy, its more than likely going to be a bit murky.

    Geeky sorts can make all the rules they want, no-one is saying they can’t, just don’t try to impose them on the rest of us. Live and let live, allow people to make their own minds up about what is or isn’t good beer. That’s all we ask.

    1. If its fresh and hoppy, its more than likely going to be a bit murky.

      This may be supported by your experience, but it’s not a general rule. Haven’t had a murky pint from Marble in quite a few years*, and I’ve never had one from Pictish, Abbeydale, Magic Rock, Mallinson’s, Harbour, SWB, Steel City… I could go on!

      *They went cloudy – and made a feature of it – at the same time they went vegan; fortunately they found a vegan alternative to fish finings quite soon afterwards.

  14. First -
    a little experiment – take 2 bottles of, say, Kernel. Let one stand somewhere fairly cool until all the sediment has settled to the bottom. Pour that one carefully into a glass, leaving the sediment behind.
    Take a second bottle (similar temperature so you’re comparing like with like) and pour the whole lot in, sediment and all.
    Which do you prefer? (If you can’t taste the difference you need surgery). There is no wrong answer here, but it’s important to understand the difference in taste.

    Second -
    the beer in German brewpubs is universally dreadful. It only sells at all because they have sold (some) Germans the idea that it’s “fresh”, “natural” and “traditional”. The beer is unfinished – they don’t wish to filter it to save time, money and labour, and they don’t have the space, tanks or financial leeway to lager/mature it.

    I can’t quite explain why, but I entirely agree with whoever it was who said above that session beer (either in the UK or Germany) should not be murky. As has also been said above, yeast has a distinct taste and I don’t like it, not even when it’s supposed to be there, as in Hefeweizen.

  15. I guess my feeling is that, if cloudy/hazy/murky beer tastes *bad*, in some objective sense, then there won’t be much demand for it.

    But if we want a diverse beer market with lots of variety, and products with complexity in the mix (some may not…), then we probably can’t continue to apply simplistic, rather arbitrary rules about what is good and what is bad.

    Can’t argue with point-of-sale information, though: if brewers keep punters informed of how beer is supposed to look, smell and taste, then it reduces the opportunities for anyone to be sold a pint of slops while being told it’s ‘craft beer’ by the person behind the bar.

    1. if cloudy/hazy/murky beer tastes *bad*, in some objective sense, then there won’t be much demand for it.

      Unless punters acquire the taste for yeasty beer, because it’s what they’re getting from the cool breweries – leaving people like me and Tand tell[ing] everyone else that the flavour they are enjoying is “a fault”, as py put it. I suspect that something like that is already happening for the not-quite-finished flavour profile I described here as ‘soupy’.

      As for labelling, I know I’ve told this story before, but it still seems to be relevant: a few weeks back I ordered a beer (from Moor) that was clearly marked as being hazy. I’d had Moor beers (which are unfined) before & liked them. This one was hazy with yeast, & had obviously been tapped too soon. I didn’t fancy my chances of explaining what was wrong to the barman (no, that one’s meant to be cloudy…) so I put up with it. I’m avoiding Moor beers from now on, though.

  16. My last word on this is directed at py. (Is he the same as the vexatious py0?) How many times do you have to be told that a haze from hops isn’t a problem?

    It is murk from yeast that is.. And very finally for this blog post, London Murky was coined by blogger Barm and referred to London beer in the style pioneered by Kernal.

    And finally finally, one person’s fresh and hoppy is another’s green and unfinished.

  17. God forbid punters acquire a taste for an non-approved flavour.
    Clearly, they need to be…corrected…

  18. Me & Tandy don’t always see eye to eye, but I’m with him on this – hop haze is fine & I suspect never more than that – *haze* (not cloud or murk or soup).
    Protein haze can be pretty cloudy (esp in wheat beers) but in my experience it doesn’t taste bad.

    I disagree with the idea that a hoppy beer by necessity is cloudy/murky/soupy – as examples above show, even unfined hoppy beers can be relatively clear, if brewed & handled wisely.

    In recent decades hazy beer in German brewpubs & some places in the states is a point of difference, seen to be more *real*, unprocessed, natural, etc, I’m fine with a bit of that. I just don’t like yeast-bite, esp. when it’s sold to me as beng cool & correct.

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