When you’re ordering a beer, what more can you ask for than this?
“Now, before I pull a full pint, I’m going to put a bit in a glass so you can see how it looks. It’s just gone on, and it’s hazier than we were expecting. But we got some photos up from the brewery’s taproom, and this is how it looks there. It tastes great to me, but do you want to try it before you commit?”
As we didn’t know the beer (Northern Monk Eternal) and are used to being served pints of hazy pale ale these days, we wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. But it was nice to have a dialogue.
It’s a weird facet of beer culture in 2019 that this new bit of etiquette is necessary, but here we are.
At any rate, we didn’t bother trying the beer, we just went for it, and it did taste great.
We were recently in a pub serving a range of beers we know well enough to realise that they’re never supposed to be hazy.
But, of course, the beer we ordered was served with a light haze, Moor-style, which we gently questioned.
“Oh, it’s been like that all day. It probably didn’t quite settle out right before we tapped the cask.”
It was said pleasantly enough, but dismissively — a variation on “Nobody else has complained” crossed with a watered down “It’s meant to be like that”.
Because we did know the beer, and wanted something particular from it — crispness, hop perfume — we pushed back: would it be OK, we wondered, to taste the beer, and if it had a noticeably different character than usual, or wasn’t at least as good despite the difference, have it replaced?
The manager was consulted and everyone agreed (after a bit more time and effort than one drink deserved) that this was a good idea.
Sure enough, it tasted fine — not sour or nasty — but noticeably muted, and rather dull, so we rejected it.
We — knowledgeable consumers, relatively speaking, and confident about speaking up — were able to navigate this situation to reach a satisfactory conclusion, but we can imagine others coming away thinking ill of that beer and brewery, and probably unimpressed with the pub.
But why would the manager make the choice to keep serving a beer they know isn’t right? Incompetence? Indifference? Our suspicion is that it was an unintended consequence of the corporate setup within which the pub operates prioritising the need to minimise wastage over quality.
Others, though, might argue that this is further evidence that increased acceptance of haze in certain beers is causing confusion and justifying shoddiness more generally. If that’s the case then complaining when possible (quietly, politely), making it more trouble than it is worth, might be part of the solution.
Not long ago, when Coopers Sparkling was the local paragon of ‘good beer’, Australian brewers got into the habit of fogging up their beers seemingly just to emulate it and borrow some of its prestige. Likewise, some brewers of juice-bomb East Coast IPAs exaggerate their haze with additives selected solely for that purpose, and not in pursuit of tastier beer as such. Such trickery is indeed obnoxious, but it’s the cheating, not the cloudiness, that offends me.
But the very thing that made The Commons beloved by some–and they probably have more superfans than Deschutes–made it mysterious to most. It was the Velvet Underground of breweries, making exceptional beer most people didn’t understand. Any brewery that routinely offers mild ales and microbiere (a tiny saison) but not IPA is defining themselves far outside the mainstream. The Commons spent years fielding the same question from confused patrons: ‘which one’s the IPA?’For a time, they were absurdly guiding people to Myrtle, a saison in which astute drinkers might detect the presence of hop aroma. That was their sop to the masses.
His suggestion that the departure of the head brewer was an early danger sign is an interesting one, too — something to watch out for in what may or may not be a period of strife?
Martin Taylor AKA retiredmartin has been reflecting on Bass, a beer with which we are also slightly obsessed, as a manifesto continues to emerge from his reports of visiting every Good Beer Guide pub in Britain:
Some of you may have noticed my predilection for Draught Bass, but it’s a complex relationship… If honest, I’d prefer it if only a landlord who cared about Bass served it, like the Black Lion in Leighton Buzzard so clearly does… Top beers like Young’s, Adnams and Landlord saw their reputation decline as their beers went into chain pubs with more hand-pumps than customers, and I fear Bass has suffered by being served too early, or too long, in many pubs.
We’ve noticed an improvement in Bass, and in Young’s Ordinary, in recent years and think he might be on to something here. And might not a Good Bass Guide — a slim volume — be a useful publication?
We don’t often include trip reports here for one reason and another but this account of a visit to Edinburgh from Katie at The Snap & The Hiss has at its centre a lovely moment of personal importance, paired, of course, with a suitable beer.
This ostensibly rather boring bit of behind-the-scenes CAMRA business might be one of the most important stories of the week: the Campaign is experiencing some financial difficulties because ‘revenue was likely to be less than the amount forecast at the start of the financial year, and upon which the organisation’s spending plans were based’. In other words, people are literally not buying what CAMRA is selling. We will watch how this develops with interest. (Morning Advertiser)
The problem with Vermont IPAs, AKA New England IPAs, isn’t that they’re cloudy — it’s that they’re not bitter enough. Perhaps because they’re cloudy.
We’ve kept our minds open until now pushing back against the kind of knee-jerk conservatism that rejects hazy beer almost as a point of principle. We wrote about Moor, the brewery that pioneered unfined beer in the UK, in Brew Britannia, highlighting that, whatever you think of the trend, it wasn’t something Justin Hawke embarked on carelessly — it came out of personal preference and experimentation. Then for CAMRA’s quarterly BEER magazine last year we pulled together various bits of evidence underlining that haziness/cloudiness in beer has not always been taboo among connoisseurs and, indeed, has sometimes been seen as a mark of quality.
But at the same time — on the fence as ever — we’ve maintained a certain scepticism about the hazy, hoppy beers we’ve actually encountered in real life. We’ve continued looking for chances to drink IPAs with cloudiness as a flagship feature, especially anything labelled Vermont or NE IPA, trying to understand.
At BrewDog Bristol on Friday we were able to drink two different takes side by side — the first time this opportunity has ever presented itself — and in so doing, something clicked.
BrewDog Vermont IPA (7.5% ABV, £4.90 ⅔ pint) is on its fourth experimental iteration and struck us instantly as overwhelmingly sweet — like a cornershop canned mango drink. But it didn’t taste yeasty, gritty or musty. It was clean, within its own parameters. Cloudwater NE Double IPA with Mosaic hops (9%, £4.95 per half pint) was incredibly similar clearly drawing on the same source of inspiration but better and more complex: pineapple, green onion and ripe banana. But it too verged on sickly and both beers we thought would have been far more enjoyable with the bitterness dialled right up to compensate for the muffling effect of the yeast haze, and to balance the fruitiness. Or, we suppose, with the haze dialled down to let the bitterness through.
Fortunately, the same bar also had on draught Cloudwater’s 9% ‘non-Vermont’ DIPA, which seemed only a touch less cloudy than the full-on milkiness of the previous two beers. The barman told us it was the first batch of the successor to the numbered V series. There was a snatch of garlicky armpit aroma we could have done without but, overall, it was just the mix of soft tropical lushness and diamond-hard bitterness that we were after. It was very good and proof, perhaps, that systematic batch-by-batch experimentation with customer feedback can pay off.
Back to the New England style, then: is purpose of the suspended yeast stuff (protein more than yeast — thanks, Emma) to soften and dull the bitterness? If so, and assuming that both BrewDog and Cloudwater know what they’re doing when they attempt to clone American originals, we can certainly see the appeal. Bitterness can be challenging, spiky, hard to love; whereas sweetness and fruitiness are accessible, easygoing characteristics. Good fun. Soft sells.
So, we’re now convinced Vermont/NE IPA is a Thing — a perfectly legitimate, interesting, coherent Thing that you have to take on its own terms rather than thinking of it as a flawed take on a style you think you already know. We’re never going to be fans — not with our frazzled middle-aged palates — but, as with some other marginal beer styles, will certainly take the odd glass now and then for the sake of variety.
We also got to try Verdant Headband (£4.50 ⅔ pint) on draught at BrewDog and found it much better than the cans, although still rather one-dimensional. Again, more bitterness might have filled a hole here.
And the beer of the session — the only one that really knocked our socks off — was Cloudwater’s Double India Pale Lager (£4.95 ½). It might sound like the kind of thing traditionalists invent when satirising craft beer but, in fact, was an extremely happy marriage of traditions. Depending on your angle of view it is either (a) a characterful bock with a livening twist of citrus or (b) a pleasingly clean, crystalline, well-mannered IPA.
Another big brewery takeover of a British craft brewery. (Not yet.)
More beers making a feature of malt, herbs and actual fruit. (Kind of.)
Birmingham goes ‘craft’. (Also kind of.)
A mainstream hazy beer. (Not yet.)
We put forward that last one as a ‘flyer’ but it doesn’t feel as ‘out there’ as it did even ten months ago. CAMRA has made (let’s word this carefully) small gestures towards acknowledging unfined beer. Most of the canned IPAs and pale ales we’ve picked up lately have poured hazy and the people we’ve been drinking with — not beer geeks — weren’t appalled, if they even noticed. ‘New England IPA’, of which cloudiness is a key characteristic, has become the sub-style of the day. As we said back in December 2015, cloudiness is great for marketing people because it’s a verifiable and easy-to-spot point of difference which is already being exploited by big cider makers.
So, we’re going to refine our original prediction to sidestep debates about wheat beer: we expect to see the UK launch of at least one mainstream, hazy pale ale or lager from a larger brewery and, in general, more deliberately hazy or cloudy beer on sale outside specialist venues. Bearing in mind it’s taken John Smith’s et al 25 years to get on the golden ale bandwagon it might not be through one of those really big brands but we can definitely imagine seeing something on the ale shelves in a supermarket, perhaps from within the Marston’s empire.
Now, this isn’t something we’re wishing for — it’s just our read of the way the wind is blowing. Whether the clouds it is bringing are fluffy, friendly ones or the dark harbingers of a storm probably depends on your point of view.
Here’s all the beer- and pub-related reading that’s grabbed our attention in the past seven days, from the science of hazy beer to New York dive bars.
→ Let’s get brewery takeover news out of the way: Dutch lager brewing firm Bavaria (confusing, right?) has taken a controlling interest in Belgian concern Palm. The deal includes Rodenbach, itself taken over by Palm in 1998, but not Boon in which Palm has had a stake on and off for some years. We can’t find a decent English language source but here’s one in French which Google Translate seems to cope with well enough, and a brief piece in English from Retail Detail.
→ Right, now down the good stuff. Emma at Crema’s Beer Odyssey has written a post we’ve all been waiting for: a measured, informed consideration of hazy beer. Emma is a scientist by profession and so, rather than give us a bunch of stuff that she ‘reckons’, she set out to test a hypothesis:
[My] rough hypothesis was: ‘haze = hop flavour’. I don’t necessarily see it as an exponential relationship, i.e. ‘>haze = >hop flavour’, but there is definitely a positive association between the two factors in my experience.
In her essay ‘Presenting the Perfect Pint: Drink and Visual Pleasure in Late Nineteenth-Century London’ Fiona Fisher argues that judging beer by its appearance was a product of a period when public houses were smartened up and glasses replaced tankards.
There are lots of fascinating details pointing off towards original sources. For example, Fisher quotes a few words from this passage from George August Sala’s 1859 book Gaslight and Daylight which prompted us to seek out the surrounding text:
The inside of the [public] house was as much transmogrified as the outside… It was all mahogany — at least, what wasn’t mahogany, was gilt carving and ground glass, with flourishing patterns on it. The bar was cut up into little compartments like pawnbrokers’ boxes ; and there was the wholesale entrance, and the jug and bottle department, the retail bar, the snuggery, the private bar, the ladies’ bar, the wine and liqueur entrance, and the lunch bar. The handles of the taps were painted porcelain, and green, and yellow glass. There were mysterious glass columns, in which the bitter ale, instead of being drawn lip comfortably from the cask in the cellar below, remained always on view above ground to show its clearness, and was drawn out into glasses by a mysterious engine like an air-pump with something wrong in its inside.
That is just one example she provides of evidence that people were judging beer on its clarity from at least the middle of the 19th century but, she argues, it was only in the 1890s that the image of the connoisseur holding his glass up to the light really became common in advertising and depictions of beer drinking — ‘seeing is knowing’. An account from a Licensed Victuallers’ magazine of a landlord who ‘knows a good beer when he sees it (in a glass)’ (emphasis in original) is particularly compelling.
The pursuit of clarity in beer, she suggests, was tied up with expectations of transparency around weights and measures, ongoing anxiety over adulteration, and with efforts by the trade to elevate the status of pubs:
Within the modernized public house setting, the beer that was clear, bright, and sparkled in the glass symbolized its improved status to late nineteenth-century customers, whose participation in the visual pleasures of consumption asserted their status as discerning consumers and incorporated them within a fashionable public modernity.
We have found isolated nuggets of evidence to suggest that, historically, some people actually liked hazy or cloudy beer, in the same way haziness in scrumpy cider is valued by some as a sign of authenticity, but we are increasingly convinced that was an outlying preference and that people have long preferred clear beer, given the choice. Fisher’s argument that it is only in the last 125 years that they have had the means to be able to judge it — adequate lighting and glassware in pubs — makes sense in that context.
Comment thread challenge: if you respond to this post, can you do so without using the phrase ‘London murky’?
As pointed out by one commenter on our post about beer clarity from last week, that can give us an insight into whether hazy beer necessarily tasted better, or was thought to taste better, in the past.
We put Ron’s figures into a spreadsheet (from 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11) and cut them various ways. Here’s what we found:
Beers being rated on a scale of -3 to 2, of the 84 beers rated 1 and 2, some 22 were described as hazy, cloudy or variants thereon.
Of the 60 beers scoring between -1 and -3, some 23 were described as bright or brilliant.
Some beers described as hazy or cloudy were recorded as having ‘poor’ flavour, while others tasted ‘very fair’ or ‘good’.
Beers described as brilliant were generally also found to taste good, though one was ‘poor’ and quite a few others were ‘fair’ (acceptable, with an overall score of 1).
UPDATE 13/2/2014: Ron has clarified in a comment below that the numerical scores are his addition, based on Whitbread’s more-or-less standardised flavour descriptors.
In other words, Whitbread’s tasters didn’t find any particular connection between clarity and flavour. Hazy beer wasn’t somehow better or more virtuous, but nor was it necessarily bad.
What we’d really like to know is whether customers in the pub would have shown a preference for the beer that looked ‘bright’ but had ‘unpleasant flavour, going off’.
2. The barmaid who thought we weren’t looking when she held a sparkler near the pump in the last few seconds as she pulled the pint to lively up the head. She didn’t attach it, she just held it in place while she put the finishing touches to our pints. Without this bit of weird jiggery-pokery, we suspect they would have been completely flat.
UPDATE 27/07/2012: we spotted another barmaid in a St Austell pub doing more-or-less the same thing with the sparkler only, this case, she stopped when she had the glass two-thirds full, fixed the sparkler properly, and then finished the pint. We asked why and she said: “Because Proper Job is a bit lively. If you leave the sparkler on the whole time, it gets too much head. This is the best of both worlds.” So, there you go, we got it wrong first time round.