The clear beer debate
Whether homebrew should be clear or cloudy seems to have drawn a line through the homebrewing world.
There is a perception that because of homebrew’s rustic nature, a little haze is OK.
Hop driven, hazy boutique beers are also hitting the market, changing people’s expectations.
But in the other corner, many consider clear beer an indicator of quality and won’t touch a murky brew.
Who’s right? Let’s unpack it.
The argument for hazy homebrew
Homebrew is a natural product. This idea of stripping away yeast and protein haze to make it look like mainstream beer doesn’t sit well with many homebrewers.
There are different reasons for haze and many haze types won’t affect the taste.
Some even enhance the flavor. Take a weizen for example; the classic cloudy wheat beer. The yeast rounds out the beer beautifully.
Very hoppy beers will also be cloudy due to the hop tannins. There is nothing wrong with a slight haze through a hoppy APA.
People even expect it.
The case against cloudy beer
All things being equal, a well-made beer will be clearer than a bad one:
The brewer has fully converted the mash so no unconverted starch gets into the final beer.
They’ve also boiled the wort properly, leading to flavor development and proteins dropping from suspension.
The beer has been mellowed through cold conditioning or lagering, further dropping yeast, proteins and other compounds out of the beer.
The beer has had time to condition in the bottle, further dropping hazy compounds from suspension.
Clear beer is a marker for quality. It’s not the only one, but it is the most apparent.
And it’s the one that strikes people first. They look first, smell second and taste third.
The general public are apprehensive about homebrew. Even your friends will give your beer a good eyeball before even thinking about tasting it.
Cloudy beer will raise an eyebrow. Floating yeast chunks and flecks of hops will wreck your homebrewing reputation in one fell swoop.
For better or worse, you will win more people over to homebrew with clear beer. They like clear beer.
Give the people what they want.
OK. There are convincing arguments on both sides, so let’s understand haze better so we can make informed cloudy choices.
What causes homebrew haze?
Haze is caused by solid particles suspended in your beer.
These are either biological or non-biological.
Biological is basically yeast or bacteria. Non-biological can be caused by excessive starch, protein and tannins.
Yeast-driven haze will often disappear as the yeast falls from suspension. Often harsher compounds will attach to yeast, so as the yeast drops from suspension, the beer becomes smoother.
You can speed this process up through chilling, using finings and even filtering.
You can also select a highly flocculant yeast which will drop from suspension more readily.
Be alert when your mate offers you a cloudy ‘authentic ale’. The cause may well be an infection, with bacteria developing and remaining in suspension.
Apart from causing haze, bacterial infections will also cause tartness, diacetyl or vegetative flavors.
If you get hints of any of these, chances are he has infected beer. Be kind but honest.
When we work with raw ingredients, we are more likely to have non-biological haze, caused by the extra proteins and tannins in our grain and hops.
However, with a little understanding and a few ninja tricks, we can fix this.
If you have excessive protein in your beer, this will cause haziness.
Protein haze can reduce beer stability, meaning beer will stale more quickly.
It is caused by using high protein grains (eg wheat and oats), a weak boil and slowly cooling your wort.
In some styles of beer such as a hefeweizen it can be intentional and welcomed, but in most other beer styles it is not.
Tannins (also known as polyphenols) occur naturally in our ingredients, primarily grain husk and hops.
These are very small compounds, and when combined with protein can make a long-lasting haze.
The main causes are:
Hot mashing issues can also cause flavor problems, so are best corrected.
Haze from hopping has little negative impact on flavor and has even become a marketing asset for many craft breweries.
Non-biological haze is often seen as chill haze. This is a common haze, which appears at near freezing temperatures and disappears as the beer warms.
The usual culprit is excessive proteins being transferred from the boil. To combat chill haze, boil your wort well, use kettle finings and try to keep most of the sludge in your boiler when transferring to the fermenter.
Starch haze is caused by not fully converting your mash (ie changing starches to fermentable sugars).
This will cause staling in beer and reduce its shelf life.
The hazy homebrew wrap up
Beers need to be hazy for the right reasons.
Desperate homebrewers sometimes try to pass infections and poor brewing practices off as rustic, but bad beer is still bad beer.
On the flip side, yeast-driven and hop hazy beers will work for me every time if the fundamental brewing practices are maintained.
For me, I strive for clear beer unless the style calls for haze.
In practice there is usually a link between haze and quality, so I brew for clarity.
Even when brewing dark beers like stouts, I will use finings and cold conditioning to remove yeast, proteins and tannins.
At the end of the day though it’s your call: you are the one drinking your homebrew. If you think haze is authentic, make it hazy.
If you prefer it clear, brew it clear.
How to clear your beer
If you want to clear your beer, here’s how…
Fully convert your mash
Get a rolling and vigorous boil
Proteins coagulate in a solid boil and will drop to the bottom of the pot afterward. You can even see white flecks of protein forming, usually within the first 20 minutes of the boil. This is known as hot break.
You will get clearer beer if you leave most of this behind when carefully transferring cooled wort to your fermenter.
A little hot break is good for yeast health, but too much may cause haze.
Add seaweed to your beer (no joke)
Irish moss and whirlfloc are products are made from seaweed and used to clear beer in the boiling kettle.
Known as kettle or copper finings, these will cause tannins and proteins to clump together and drop quickly.
Add kettle finings to the boiler for the last 10 minutes. Combined with a good boil, they will greatly improve your beer’s clarity.
Boiling kettle finings for longer than 15 minutes will reduce their effectiveness.
Use a highly flocculant yeast
Some yeasts are more flocculant than others, meaning they will fall to the bottom of your fermenter quickly after fermentation is finished.
If you want to brew a very clear ale for example, try a highly flocculant yeast such as SafAle S-04.
For lagers, try Lallemand’s Diamond Lager Yeast.
Chill quickly after fermentation
Chilling your wort will cause the yeast to drop from suspension quickly.
Typically you might ferment an ale for a week and crash cool to 39°F (4°C) for another week.
Lagers are slightly more involved.
You can also combine chilling with racking and finings.
Time heals all wounds they say, and will also solve some clarity issues. Over time, yeast and some non-biological compounds will settle on the bottom of your bottle or keg.
Add Post fermentation finings
Finings are additives that are added to the fermenter or keg after fermentation has finished. They work by clumping the haze compounds together, causing them to drop more quickly.
This is where the clear and hazy beer camps start to divide.
Many homebrewers try to follow the historic German Reinheitsgebot purity law and frown on such additives.
This 500-year old law limits beer ingredients to just water, barley, hops and yeast. There are a few different reasons for the law’s introduction back in the day, but Reinheitsgebot is seen in modern times as an indication of wholesome, high-quality beer.
There are three main types of finings – gelatin, polyclar PVPP and isinglass.
All are mixed through the wort after fermentation and work best when the wort is cooled.
Chilling causes more haze to form so it can be more effectively removed.
Gelatin is made from cow collagen and a natural product. You can use unflavored gelatin from your local supermarket.
When mixed in your wort, it electrically charges yeast and proteins, causing them to clump together and fall quickly from suspension.
Be careful not to heat gelatin above 158°F (70°C) or it will wreck its clearing superpowers.
Gelatin is easy to use to clear your beer:
Boil a cup and a half of water in a small pot.
Cover and leave to cool to below 158°F (70°C).
Sprinkle half a tablespoon of gelatin on the water. Stir through with a sanitized spoon until dissolved.
Gently rack your fermented wort on top of the gelatin solution. If you aren’t racking, gently stir through the wort, trying not to disturb the yeast cake.
Leave for a week and bottle or keg as you normally would.
There are more complicated methods out there on forums and the such, but this process is easy and works incredibly well.
Gelatin can also be used when kegging beer. Just add the gelatin solution to the keg, carbonate and leave for a week.
The first glass or two will be murky but everything after will be very bright.
Using Polyclar PVPP
Polyclar PVPP is an insoluble clarifying agent made from powdered plastic.
It doesn’t sound too appealing but this gear is amazing in quickly removing all types of haze.
It is the most effective of the finings products and used by many international breweries.
To use, stir into a cup of boiled water to create a slurry.
Rack your chilled and fermented wort on top of this slurry or mix through in the primary fermenter.
After two to three days, the beer will be bright and ready for packaging.
Seaweed. Cow hoof extract. What’s next? Yep, you guessed it. Fish.
Isinglass is a fining agent made from the swim bladders of sturgeon. Isinglass is a highly concentrated natural form of collagen, so works similarly to gelatin.
There are a few different forms, but the most accessible for busy homebrewers is the instant variety.
Simply dissolve half a teaspoon in one cup of boiled water, mix into your fermented wort as described for gelatin and leave for five days.
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