Friday, 30 March 2012

Hazy thinking

In the late Seventies and Eighties, I had too many experiences where I was served a pint of soup masquerading as beer and, on taking it back to the bar, was told “it’s real ale, Sir, it’s meant to be like that.” On a couple of occasions the barperson even said “and you’ve had a drink out of it!” as a reason not to change it. And there were a handful of times when I was handed a pint with obvious bits of white stuff floating in it. At that time, the perception that it was frequently cloudy was a major disincentive to many drinkers trying cask beer.

Fortunately, things have greatly improved now. Many brewers have started cellar quality initiatives, and the Cask Marque scheme has done much to drive up the quality of beer handed over the bar. It’s now generally accepted that cask beer should be crystal clear, 100% of the time, and any failure of clarity is sufficient grounds for a refund or exchange, no questions asked.

However, I’ve seen a growth in mutterings that demanding clear beer is a bit passé and 20th century, and drinkers should be willing to embrace a new wave of funky, artisanal cloudy beer. Moor Brewery in Somerset put forward a motion to the 2012 AGM of SIBA that the organisation should remove clarity as a requirement for beer competitions. Whether the motion succeeded I don’t know.

It’s important to draw a distinction here. There are plenty of beer styles around the world such as Belgian witbier and German Hefeweizen which are traditionally and authentically cloudy. If British brewers wish to take up these styles, or brew other types of beer that are intentionally cloudy, then fair enough, so long as the customer is told what to expect at the point of sale. Cloudy beers can stand or fall on their own merits in the marketplace.

But this movement seems to go beyond that to suggest that the importance of clarity in normal cask beers is greatly overstated. It seems to be a case of “look at me, I'm a really serious, sophisticated beer enthusiast, I don't need to conform to such tedious mass-market norms as clarity.” It's a bit like a car buff saying that reliability is so bourgeois.

In the comments on this post, Tandleman pithily says “I think this is becoming some kind of artisanal snobbery whereby beer is sent out cloudy as some silly dick waving exercise.” There is a real risk of undoing twenty years of promoting good cellar practice and putting a whole new generation off cask beer.

With vanishingly few exceptions, a cloudy pint is a sign of poor cellarmanship – either serving green beer that hasn’t yet had chance to settle properly, or a cask having been disturbed in the cellar, or trying to eke out the last dregs and sucking up some sediment. You don’t need to taste it – it’s a glaring fault, and should be sent straight back.

Some may criticise this as “drinking with your eyes”, but I make no apology for expecting beer to appeal to the sense of sight as well as taste, and to be well-presented and look good in the glass. Food is all the better for being carefully arranged rather than just flung on the plate, and so is beer. And that attitude is not all that far from suggesting you shouldn’t be that bothered about the taste so long as it gets you pissed.

I’m sure many of you will have been in the position where you order a pint in an unfamiliar pub, and it comes out just borderline hazy, with a thin, scummy head, and a glass that is warm to the touch, and you just know before a drop passes your lips that it’s going to be crap. Clarity doesn’t guarantee a good pint, but for the general run of British ales, a lack of it is a sure sign of a poor one.


  1. I broadly agree - in beer that is meant to be clear, clarity is one indicator of quality.

    But I think finings muddy the water (sorry); fined beer which is cloudy tastes deadened. Moor and the like *are not fining* their cask beer and, if I recall correctly, suggest that given adequate cellar time to condition would not necessarily be soupy but have a haze.

    Like I say, I broadly agree with you. But there is a big difference between fined beer that's cloudy and unfined beer that's cloudy.

  2. I would add there is a taste difference between bottle conditioned beers (such as Kernel, who don't use finings) between the settled beer and the cloudy, mixed-up beer. Some like it with the yeast added; some don't. And it varies beer-by-beer, too.

    I don't like the sediment in the IPAs; I do in the dark beers. But it's not a case of 'better' vs 'worse'. There is a taste difference which some will like and others won't.

  3. Lout never lets you down.

    And it gets you pissed.

  4. A cask marque sticker is enough for me to trust that if i'm not enjoying a beer it's because it 's not to my taste rather than being a bad pint; a distinction I encounter a lot with the more experimental brewers.
    Shame then that Robinsons have fired their latest cask marque accredited employee for telling a family that his pub isn't suitable for children.

  5. The SIBA motion you refer to was amended and accepted (HardknottDave posted the revised text, and I'm sure no-one will mind me adding it here - I hope I've got it right):

    1 That SIBA recognises that historic beer styles and modern beer drinkers do not ALL require clarity in beer.
    2 This meeting asks the Secretariat to consider how best to recognise this in SIBA Beer Competitions and to consider how best to educate the trade and consumers about the increased variety of styles this brings to British Brewing

    Clarity is not much more than a proxy measure for "drinking quality" even in those styles that have been marked by it. A nice bright pint looks nice tho' doesn't it? As do some hazy ones. It's just a matter of what you're used to.

  6. Mudgie has the right of it here. Judging by the amendment though, SIBA have found a way of kicking this nonsense into the long grass. Clarity is one of their judging criteria for good reason.

    So hazy/cloudy beer is a "style" now is it? Or is that two styles? If you want to drink trub and sediment, stick to BCAs. Have it in kegs if you like too, but please leave cask out of it.

  7. I think you've missed the point of Justin's motion through SIBA entirely. This has nothing to do with promoting poor quality, out of condition, hazy or off beer. This is about trying to enhance the experience for the drinker. Moor, Black Isle, Summer Wine and now a few others have VERY clearly advertised their beer as unfined, and worked with some experienced bar managers to set up taste tests. The reason we have all done this is simple, the unfined wins every time which goes to show that actually, if you provide the drinker with a choice and explain the difference thus letting them choose which beer they would like, more often than not they pick the slightly hazy non conformist beer that just happens to have significantly great flavour.

    Now as a fan of great flavour I am all for it and every taste test we ran with Black Isle blew the socks off the fined beers. The fact that Justin has managed to get unfined beer in to the Nicholsons estate is a triumph for people who actually want to get the most from their beer.

    As for Casque Marque, I'd argue it's associated with a lot of things. Quality isn't one of them.

    As for 'I think this is becoming some kind of artisanal snobbery whereby beer is sent out cloudy as some silly dick waving exercise'. They are the words of a halfwit with little if any idea of the progressive direction of this industry. I didn't read the linked post, but I'll take a wild stab that the author is a member of CAMRA.

    There is no 'real danger of undoing 20 yrs of hard work' at all, that is utter nonsense. More people are being drawn to great beer, cask keg and bottle because the offering is more interesting. Sure unfined cask beer is a good marketing idea, but it's not a 'dick waving exercise' or damaging to the cask market, it is about providing beer to people who are interested in trying new things.

    These are positive moves and provide a point of interest and give the customer just a little bit more. I'd hate for people to read this blog and think you're right.

  8. Can we all agree, at least, that any beer, hazy or clear, considered "craft" is clearly labelled as such so I may avoid it like I would a clap riddled whore?

  9. I guess the point of the motion is that it must be pretty annoying to set out to brew a particular beer that tastes and looks a certain way; which tastes good to you, the brewer, and perhaps also to your tasting panel; and perhaps even to the SIBA judges; but which is then marked down because it looks how you intended it to on the basis of a set of over-rigid rules.

    I haven't heard anyone say "I only like cloudy beer"; "clear beer is all crap" or anything as simple-minded as that.

    As for drinking with your eyes, well, haze/cloudiness just doesn't look bad to me. It doesn't put me off. It can look quite appetizing in the right beer. I guess I was lucky not to live through the years when cloudy beer meant bad beer and upset your tum but, for whatever reason, I don't have make that association.

    This is another one where we should let the market decide. If people like unfined beer, it'll sell. If they don't... it'll go away.

  10. As a Joe Public imbiber I associate Cask Marque with a publican making an effort who knows how to serve a specific beer type well. That might not be everyone's mark of quality, but it's equally not a mark of Good Beer that denigrates other beer types.

    Avoid what you want, I'm off for a nice cloudy ginger. Horses for courses.

  11. "Shame then that Robinsons have fired their latest cask marque accredited employee for telling a family that his pub isn't suitable for children. "

    Care to name names?

  12. A couple of questions:

    Does unfined mean that no fining agent has been added at any stage?

    My understanding is that beer can be cleared without the addition of fining agents, so saying a beer is unfined does not imply the beer would be hazy. Is this correct?

    On the other hand, haze can be due to tannin/protein being present rather than suspended material such as yeast. In other words what would be the expected presentation of a beer termed 'unfined'?

  13. If hazy beer is a growing trend that consumers will accept all well and fine, as long as it isn't an excuse for the lazy in the trade to ruin ales that are quite clearly meant to be served bright, I don't see what all the fuss is about.

    Unfortunately, Mudge is quite right, there is still a propensity to drink with the eyes first. I have had some perfectly good ale (I've drunk and sold) that during the winter months has occasionally had a "chill haze" ... some would drink it some wouldn't ... good customer service dictated that those who returned it got something else ...

  14. Tut tut Chris. It is almost always a mistake to call someone you don't know a half wit - especially when it is clear you haven't read the original post which gives a lot more context and was part of a wider discussion with views for and against. It wasn't even on my blog. Mind you as you are in marketing, I suppose you'll have a lot of experience of half wits, so I won't judge you by your own standards and those of your peers. There are many other reasons why you shouldn't do it too, but hopefully you can see where I'm coming from.

    For those that would like the full picture, I'd look at the original link, but reproduced below is the bit I chipped in, which I think is a little more nuanced that Chris gives me credit for. FYI - The brewer referred to as "Stuart" is Stuart Howe, Head Brewer of Sharps. If Chris Mair fancies calling him a half wit too, let me know where and when and I'll buy a ticket. I of course as everyone knows will simply turn my other cheek. Being slagged off for my beer knowledge by a marketing man is pretty much a compliment and will be treated as such.

    I wonder about this small trend. This is why: "Fining beer has an incredibly small impact on flavour." as Stuart says and to most eyes, clear beer is more appealing.

    Though at times I understand that it may not be so due to hop rates, etc etc and if so and the beer tastes good, then no problem. Other circumstances have been described by Stuart and that's good enough for me.

    I think this is becoming some kind of artisanal snobbery whereby beer is sent out cloudy as some silly dick waving exercise. Cloudy isn't necessarily a bad thing, but to elevate it into a virtue is stretching it a bit. This is another Yankee "innovation" we seem to wish to follow blindly. Even if you keep some of the so called good things, you'll also keep some of the bad things.

    Finally your words "I wish more brewers were doing this; serving unfined beer with a note to customers saying it is meant to be that way because it tastes better" would seen to be just an opinion stated as fact.

    PS. You can hide a multitude of sins in a dark beer.

  15. "as long as it isn't an excuse for the lazy in the trade to ruin ales that are quite clearly meant to be served bright"

    That is the concern about what might happen - and if the word starts to get about again that cask beer is often cloudy, it will put very many people off drinking it.

    And it's impossible not to detect a distinct vein of snobbery about all this, that clarity in beer is something "for the little people".

  16. Curmudgeon -- questioning people's motives (dick-waving, snobbery) with no real evidence is a really quick way to shut down debate. Personally, I'm finding it really easy not to detect a vein of snobbery: I don't have any doubt that this trend has been prompted by curious brewers wanting to experiment. Whether they'll achieve anything by it, who knows, as I haven't tasted an unfined beer yet, but tinkering for tinkerings sake is legitimate, isn't it, if we want brewers to be creative? Otherwise, we get stagnation.

  17. A hell of a lot of people start drinking with their eyes, and cannot get over the fact that a bit of haze isn't necessarily a bad thing. Some of the nicest cask ale that I have had has had a distinct haze of some kind.
    There is only one guaranteed way to get a perfect pint every time, and that is to drink smoothflow, not cask ale. :p

  18. I tried unfined black isle yellowhammer next to the standard yellowhammer and was amazed at the taste and smell difference. The unfined version was fantastic, great taste and a joy to drink. Something I would look out for and hunt down! The normal version was just ok, something you would order if there was nothing better available.
    I enjoy the Moor unfined beers too, had them in a few Nicholson bars before and always an enjoyable pint.

  19. Mudgie, you've got it right here. If a beer obviously isn't meant to be clear (eg weissbier) or is clearly marked as unfined, then it's OK for it to be cloudy. Otherwise clarity should be the norm, although a bit of chill haze is sometimes inevitable. I think we can all tell the difference between a pint that's a bit hazy and something resembling soup with bits of beak and twig floating in it.

  20. Interestingly while at a beer festival last summer I had the chance to try some of the same Moor beers in both fined and unfined states. I very much enjoyed them both, probably preferring the unfined, and I fully support allowing brewers to have their beer served how they intend it to be brewed. Also, would SIBA turn away a British brewed Heffeweisz from a competition because it's cloudy?

  21. Well who says unfined beer has to be hazy? As I have said before Dave Porter when he ran Porter Brewing Co, and now he runs Outstanding Brewery didn't and doesn't fine his beer. And it's clear. Ditto for Marble. As for Black Isle Yellowhammer I understand this is usually and will continue to be fined and clear.

    I guess others might well do the same so it's cobblers for Bailey to say he/she (I always forget which is which) to they haven't had an unfined beer so far when what they really mean is they haven't had a cloudy "craft" (cos it;s always going to be "craft isn't it?) beer, They may well have had a clear unfined beer and not know about it.

    The thing that gets me is that all this is being presented as something new and exciitng when it's nothing of the sort. Years ago seasoned Holts drinkers in North Manchester reckined the bitter was better with a slight cast (not the pea soup some of the contributors to these comments ssem to be wetting their pants about) and one licensee was known to go down to the cellar and give his casks a kick if his beer was coming out too clear.

    I'm with you Mudgie at the end of the day this ia all about snobbery and pretention - "My dear, clear beer is so 20th century, don't you know?" Oh puh-leese.

  22. (John -- I'm a bloke.)

    This is about the most bad-tempered lot of comments I've seen in a while.

    We've never had a British beer *advertised* as unlined. How's that?

    If people choose to read snobbery into one thing or another (still yet to see anyone point at a particular pronouncement to back that up in this case) there's not much anyone can do about it, just as there's not much a musician can do about people hearing satanic messages on their records when they're played backwards.

  23. Oops: *unfined* (phone's auto-correct lodges its vote against the idea, at any rate)

  24. I don't think a pint HAS to be 100% clear on every occasion - apart from anything else, you can wait a long time for a freshly drawn pint to drop bright, especially if it has been pumped through a sparkler - but as well as the eyes and the mouth, a drinker should use their nose. Beer that's cloudy because it's bad will smell bad. Just as with wine that's corked, there should be no need to taste it. If you get a pint you feel unhappy with, for whatever reason, it's up to the bar person to resolve the problem, either with a replacement, an alternative or a refund, but not with a refusal or a rebuttal.

  25. I’m sure everyone agrees that the old excuse for bad beer of “It’s real ale – it’s meant to be cloudy” is unacceptable, but I haven’t heard that for ages. If clarity is not an intended characteristic of the beer, then a simple note to that effect at the point of dispense would resolve this issue to everyone’s satisfaction. If you only like clear beer, you wouldn’t order it.

    I'd just like to tackle one point: that we shouldn't drink with our eyes. Experiments have shown that we eat with our eyes: identical foodstuffs, some coloured with tasteless food dyes, were offered to test subjects, who generally tended to assert that the dyed foods and the natural-coloured ones actually tasted different, when the only difference was the colour. Blue was a particularly unpopular colour, and most considered blue carrots to be unpalatable.

    So the dictum that you should drink only with thine eyes runs contrary to human behaviour. If you don’t like the look of something, that will prejudice how you taste it. It’s not logical, I know, but then who said people were logical?

  26. Cask Marque tells you only that when the assessor last visited the beers on sale were (a) clear, (b) cool and didn't (c) smell or (d) taste off. And that someone has paid for the assessment.
    It's a marvel that anyone feels the need to advertise that they're not utterly incompetent. You'd hope that this would be a given.

  27. Well, I've been in enough pubs over the years where the beer was one or more of cloudy, lukewarm, lacking in condition, pongy or with an off flavour to suggest that a scheme that ensures pubs get the basics right must be a good idea.

  28. Bailey wrote: "I guess I was lucky not to live through the years when cloudy beer meant bad beer and upset your tum but, for whatever reason, I don't have make that association."

    Do you not still occasionally encounter crappy, cloudy beer, especially when drinking "off-grid" in unfamiliar pubs? I certainly do. Less common than thirty years ago, thankfully, but far from unknown.

  29. Honestly, not often enough for it to have fixed the connection in my head. There are usually enough danger signs before I get as far as ordering a drink that it doesn't happen often. The last pint of cloudy beer we had, the pub didn't want to give us, but we asked for a taste, it was delicious, so I drank it anyway. (Much to their disgust...)

  30. I completely agree with StringersBeer comments that "Cask Marque tells you only that when the assessor last visited the beers on sale were (a) clear, (b) cool and didn't (c) smell or (d) taste off. It's a marvel that anyone feels the need to advertise that they're not utterly incompetent. You'd hope that this would be a given."

    Unfortunately it is not a given and that appears to be back up by comments on this post. Of course the beer is not always perfect in every Cask Marque pub, but any feedback we get from the public is investigated and corrective training provided and (sometimes) investment in equipment made. We may not be perfect but we have done much to improve beer quality in this country. We welcome all constructive criticism so please feel free to email me if you get a bad pint in a Cask Marque pub at and I would be happy to check it out.

  31. Have yet to knowingly try any commercially available "un-fined" beers, but as a former full-mash homebrewer I never fined my beers! With the correct brewing techniques, a bit of patience and a decent yeast strain all beers should clear naturally on their own, without the aid of finings.

  32. As Cask Marque points out, excellent beer is not always found in every Cask Marque pub, and I'd add that it can often be found (reliably) in pubs which don't wear this badge. I can see how tourists, young persons (and anyone else who can't spot a crap boozer as soon as they walk in) might like a paternal hand on their shoulder as they hunt desperately for a decent pint, but I can't say I've ever taken any notice. Maybe I'm just lucky, but I can't remember the last bad pint I had. Or maybe my memory's going.

  33. The point of Cask Marque is to act as a scheme to raise standards in the industry more than to be a guide for consumers - there's a subtle difference. Average standards of cellarmanship have undoubtedly improved over the past twenty years, maybe to some extent due to losing many of the more marginal/less enthusiastic outlets. However, in my experience there's still plenty of lacklustre-to-poor beer to be found, see here for example.


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