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:
- 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.
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?’