Beer cloudy or clear?

Written by Steve Bury

When you enter the pub and ask for a pint what do you expect? A beautiful clear drink with a tight creamy head in a pristine glass, or a murky flat substance that that reminds you of pond water? The most annoying thing is when the landlord or bar staff argue when you try and return it. This does not happen so often these days as customers are harder to come by and attitudes have changed, but I can still remember being told “don’t drink with your eyes that tastes all right”. Well actually it doesn’t and those stupid enough to drink it would pay the price later. What is floating around in your beer is brewers’ yeast either churned up from the bottom of the cask or from a barrel that has been disturbed or not had time to settle. Dirty pipes will leave small particles of dead yeast in your glass which are slightly harder to detect. Another line was “It’s supposed to be that way, its real ale” which of course is another falsehood put about by a bad cellarman. My reply has been “If you think it’s OK I’ll pay for it and you drink it” and not surprisingly have always got my pint changed.

Our purveyors of unwholesome pints moan that nobody drank clear beer until we started using glasses instead of pewter tankards and china pots – and there may be a modicum of truth in this. Clear beer was not demanded by customers until the wide scale introduction of beer glasses in the 1850s.

The clear beer we drink today began with water and in this case the water of Burton-on-Trent. Burton-on-Trent stands in a broad river valley carved out of ancient rock, covered with layers of sand and gravel up to sixty feet deep. Water has trickled through these beds for tens of thousands of years, depositing minerals in the gravel and sandstone. When you examine the mineral content with beer in mind, it’s hard to resist thoughts of divine intervention: a higher sulphate content than any other major brewing centre in the world gives Burton beer a dry, slightly sulphurous aroma known as the “Burton snatch,” and a character that was described beautifully by one Nineteenth Century writer as, “A brightly sparkling bitter, the colour of sherry and the condition of champagne.”

Burton became famous for its brewing water in the eighteenth century as it also has the highest calcium content of any major brewing region, the highest magnesium, and low levels of sodium and bicarbonate.

Evidence of brewing at Burton Abbey goes back to 1295. It is commonly accepted that beer is a delicate beverage that doesn’t enjoy rough treatment. Britain’s roads back then left a great deal to be desired so Burton beer stayed in the local area. In 1712 the Trent Navigation opened and Burton was now at the head of one of Britain’s most extensive navigation systems, linked to huge areas of the country, including the important ports of Hull, Liverpool and Bristol. Burton brewers brought the best quality barley from Norfolk and Suffolk, and the finest hops from Kent and Worcestershire. The resulting ale could be shipped to the booming, thirsty market in London–not to mention the rest of Europe–via Hull. Later came the railways and the speedy movement of goods around the country. So popular was Burton beer that the dimensions of the ornate steel interior of St Pancras station were designed to accept the hogshead barrels of beer being delivered and then distributed by dray around London.

A shortage of oak led us to import wood for barrels from Russia and this is where finings originated, being produced from sturgeons’ swim bladders. The fluid produced (which resembles wallpaper paste) when added to the beer took any small particles and of course all the brewers’ yeast to the bottom of the cask. This is where the sediment should stay unless the cask is disturbed giving guaranteed clear beer. Other brewers around the country started to emulate Burton Ales by adding gypsum and other ingredients to their local water, and clear beer has continued as the norm until this day.

During an interview about the launch of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide Roger Protz the editor was misquoted in the press as saying that CAMRA was against the use of finings in beer. What he had said was backed up by the launch press release which said that some brewers were questioning the use of isinglass made from fish bladders. This was not only because vegetarians and vegans objected to its use but that they believed that using finings strips flavour from the beer, as it not only takes yeast but also some of the proteins to the bottom of the cask. They do not use other forms of finings such as silica or Irish moss, which as non-animal products are an acceptable alternative. Nottingham University is analysing whether a new form of finings derived from hops will work successfully. Isinglass is without any doubt the most effective and is completely odourless, and does not remain in the beer as the finings stay at the bottom of the caskwith the yeast. The secondary fermentation carries on as normal and a beautifully clear polished pint can be served.

The brewers that Roger was referring to are producing what they advertise as vegetarian or vegan beers which should not come into contact with any animal products. Where I can understand the intention I do not understand why they cannot sell their beers in normal vented casks, as finings only speed up the process of beer dropping bright. Instead Twisted Barrel of Coventry use Key Kegs which keep the beer separate from the normal atmosphere and oxygen, and cannot be vented. Key Kegs were never intended to be used for beer and were originally used for wine and soft drinks, and vary in volume from 10 to 30 litres. The beer is put into a collapsible sphere inside a rigid plastic container, gas is then applied which causes the beer (which it never comes in contact with) to be forced to the point of dispense. If the beer in the sphere is naturally conditioned the sediment will be disturbed and the beer will be delivered cloudy at the point of dispense. As Key Kegs cannot be vented a handpump cannot be used so the beer is dispensed through Keg fonts, which can be most misleading.

The brewers of these vegan vegetarian beers claim to set the ethical benchmark so why do they use an environmentally unfriendly contraption like Key Keg to serve their beers? Key Kegs are non- returnable and their size makes them hard to recycle as the sphere has to be removed from the plastic container. A proper vented returnable reusable cask must be the environmentally better option and serve the beer in a more natural manner. The problem is our vegan veggie brewers know they are selling to low turn-over outlets with bad if not non-existent cellar conditions and cellarmanship, so although they take the hard option with beer production, they take every shortcut possible when it comes to dispense. The other problem with a throwaway container is cost – who pays? Of course it is you the customer, and this goes some way to explaining why so called craft keg beers are more expensive than real ales. Disposal of Key Kegs is becoming a problem as gas may be trapped inside so they should not be crushed.

Brewers’ yeast is a laxative and something I don’t want floating around in my pint. Vegetarian and vegan beers do not need to be cloudy as the beer if brewed properly will clear naturally in the cask, though it may take up to 48 hours.

1 Comment

  • Try a New England Style IPA.

    It’s supposed to be cloudy, so this article feels very out of date to me.

    These days, unfiltered, hop-forward and aggressively dry-hopped beers can be beautiful. With amazing mouth-feel and fabulous tropical fruit flavours, letting the hops really sing.

    If you get a cloudy cask beer. Then it’s probably not supposed to be like that. Fair enough.

    But hazy beer has it’s place. And it’s delicious.

    Gone are the days when you should turn your nose up at a pint, just because it’s cloudy.

    Try Cloudwater/Beavertown for readily available English takes on the hazy IPA.

    Look out for any New England IPA (Or Vermont IPAs) – Fantastic beers.

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