A few months ago, I was at a bar and ordered an IPA. When it arrived, I picked up the glass and commented to my friend, “Look how turbid this is.”
The bartender overheard my comment, and felt compelled to defend the unexpectedly cloudy IPA by explaining that the opaque quality of the beer was caused by hop particles from dry-hopping clinging to the hop oils, and yeast that was in suspension. While I was just commenting on obvious cloudiness or haze, this guy’s reaction made it clear that he thought ‘turbid’ was a bad word.
So, is ‘turbid’ a bad word?
Poke your nose into beer discussions on social media and beer forums and you are bound to come across the discussion around turbid beers. But what is turbidity, exactly? John Kimmich, Co-Founder and Brewer at The Alchemist puts it this way: “Turbidity is the cloudiness or haziness of a fluid caused by large numbers of individual particles that are generally invisible to the naked eye – similar to smoke in air.”
A pretty generic and scientific sounding definition with no value attribution. That word sure sounds bad though, right? Will Meyers, Brewmaster at Cambridge Brewing Co., says it’s for good reason. “Turbid is a bad word and turbid beer is bad, if you define turbid as completely opaque and often with visible suspended particulate.”
But some of the hottest beers available right now are these “turbid” hoppy IPAs! What’s going on here? Are these beers bad? Are they poorly brewed? Or are they intended to be turbid?
Bryan Greenhagen, Co-Founder and Brewmaster at Mystic Brewery, says, “One of the reasons that there’s this rule that beers shouldn’t be turbid, with the exception of wheat beers, is because it’s a sign of infection. If you get a pilsner and it’s turbid, there’s a good chance there’s an infection.”
JC Tetreault, Co-Founder and Brewmaster at Trillium Brewing Co., adds, “Turbidity can be a visual indicator that there is a significant quality issue with a beer and many brewers have employed a multitude of measures to reduce or even eliminate haze to drop a beer bright.”
A certain amount of haze or turbidity is a characteristic in styles such as hefeweizen or saison, but what people like Meyers are talking about are extreme opacity and muddiness. “Once we recognize that there are degrees and definitions,” Meyers adds, “then we can draw our own lines where we see fit.” So in general, high turbidity in beer is a sign of some sort of problem, either in process or in maturation time.
Dust our hands off, cased closed, right?
Hold on a second. What about these highly sought after IPAs that are often turbid? People line up for hours in parking lots just for a chance to buy them! Are they all misinformed? Are they actually buying and drinking bad beer? They’re pretty darn tasty, if you ask us, with no obvious flaws aside from their appearance. But they certainly don’t look like the IPAs we’re used to seeing.
Ben Howe, Head Brewer at Idle Hands & Enlightenment Ales remembers, “The first time I had some of these beers and I got this beer that was super muddy looking, and I thought, ‘Really? Is it the end of the keg? What the hell is this?’ And I drank it and was like, ‘This is delicious, but it looks pretty ugly. It doesn’t look like a pale ale to me.’ It didn’t look like the way I was taught pale ales should look.”
And here might be a key. Light lagers and pilsners have been a part of our beer drinking cultures for over 200 years. Much of the language and value we place on beers come from this lager mindset. Haziness in a hefeweizen, no problem. Haziness in a pilsner is a different story. Greenhagen goes a step further in saying that, “Some of the things, like ‘off-flavors,’ are actually wonderful in the right circumstance. You can’t say they are all off. The off-flavors are all off-flavors in a light lager.”
Maybe we need to take a step back from characteristics we traditionally associate with a quality beer?
We think there is another side to this issue, as well, which has to do with educating the consumer. As the foremost craft beer retailer in the industry, Craft Beer Cellar considers as part of its responsibility and mission educating craft beer consumers on style, quality, history, appropriate flavors, proper keeping and serving, and the brewing process. Offering some clarity to the turbidity discussion (did you see what I did there?) is one way we think we can help. When it comes to IPAs, we’ve always said, “Fresh beer is best!” And what we are looking at with these turbid IPAs are super fresh beers that are meant to be consumed quickly.
Meyers explains, “Ultimately, hop character is volatile and does degrade over time. A beer brewed and matured for three weeks, or two, or one (!) and consumed in a tap room, or released on site in growler form and consumed that day will have a pronounced hoppiness which is challenging to maintain, no matter how cloudy the beer. It’s a matter of freshness. And most turbid beers will quickly or eventually clear in the bottle/growler (leaving considerable sediment) and will have a diminished, or at least changed, hop profile.”
The hazy IPAs you get in a glass at the taproom or in growlers, or super fresh bottles or cans, are definitely meant to be consumed fresh. And that cloudy look is intentional for the desired flavors, aromas and mouthfeel.
“Anything we’ve done – i.e. cold conditioning temperatures at/just below freezing temperatures for extended periods of time, biofine (a clarifying agent) – to reduce haze has had a negative impact on aroma and flavor for our hop-forward beers,” explains Tetreault. “Aroma and flavor are the most important traits of a beer for us. Combine high hopping rates, hops with very high oil content and our house yeast/processes…you get unprecedented levels of haze. The first time we packaged double dry hopped Congress Street IPA, which uses a huge amount of Galaxy, a hop with one of the highest total oil contents available, I have to admit the appearance was a little jarring. It didn’t take us long to get accustomed to (and even enjoy) its appearance, but we can understand that people have a tough time with it.”
Over time, those aromas, flavors and appearance will change, sometimes very quickly. “If people want a BRIGHT Heady, let it sit undisturbed in your fridge for 3 or 4 weeks,” says John Kimmich. We’ve tried this and compared it with a fresh Heady and, while they were both delicious, they were not the same beer.
Howe adds, “I think if you were to take Pliny, let’s say, and ferment it with a yeast that’s super non-flocculant, and not centrifuge it and not filter it, I’ll bet you it will have a very different mouthfeel and a very different hop character. If you were to centrifuge or filter these IPAs, I think they would have radically different characters.”
There is potential for the customer to become misinformed when “a particular brewer is first to release a particular type/style/etc. of beer, gains popularity, then other brewers pursue a similar style/aesthetic,” explains Meyers. “Consumers pursue these beers and assume that they are all intentionally made this way, then in extreme situations believe that unless a beer has these characteristics, it is not of the quality or profile they seek.”
Or, in other words, bright, more shelf-stable IPAs may seem less desireable to those hunting rare turbid IPAs. Howe adds, “There’s a lot of people who are new to professional brewing, who don’t necessarily know a lot about professional brewing and don’t exactly know the techniques and don’t have the experience to get beers bright. A lot of their beers are turning up turbid and opaque. A lot of people in the industry who have been in it a long time say, ‘Look at all these new brewers who don’t know how to get their beer bright – that’s a problem.’ And I largely agree with them.
“The other side of it, there’s a push away from the way certain styles have been traditionally,” Howe continues. “Appearance aside, you taste the hoppy beers coming out of Vermont, they’re radically different than anything coming out of the West Coast. They’re radically different from anything coming out of New England over the past 20 years.”
The matter is getting clouded up (pun totally intended) with those putting out intentionally turbid beers and those who do it because they don’t know better, or are justifying their results based on the popularity of these intentionally turbid IPAs. And those who are haze shaming are basically applying that critique “to essentially everyone except the people who were doing it first,” according to Howe.
Some have speculated that maybe we’re seeing a new style develop, or at least maybe another evolution of the IPA. Certainly a Ballast Point Sculpin is light years away from the original IPAs brewed in London. George Hodgson certainly wouldn’t recognize it as a pale ale brewed for the East India market. So is the style evolving or branching out?
“I think the guys up in Vermont who were the first to do it are reluctant to say so, but who wants to say, ‘I’m making a new style?’” says Howe. “Everyone is diverging. The West Coast IPA diverged from what we were traditionally doing over here, what had been done traditionally.”
And it could be that we have this mental image of what an IPA should look like, and these new hazy, hoppy beers look different from that. “If I came out tomorrow and said this new beer is ‘a yeasty, hoppy New England ale,’ maybe people would accept that definition more than American IPA, but it’s orange and totally opaque,” says Howe.
We most likely have a problem with the appearance because we’ve been told that pale ales should be bright or have slight haze. Howe explains, “If I said I’m making a hoppy hefeweizen, it’s perfectly OK to look that way. Just saying IPA is a term and it only means this thing because the BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) says it or GABF (Great American Beer Festival) says it…Well, that’s problematic. We’re Americans, we traditionally have never given a fuck about style, have we? Belgian IPA, I’ve never seen anyone go on a diatribe about that.”
“Me and a lot of other brewers have to call things styles for people to understand them,” says Greenhagen. “But I’m not worrying about if something is a style and I don’t think the producers should be worrying about that. And here you have something that people love and just because it’s not to an old style doesn’t mean it isn’t something new, and may even get it’s name changed over time like American Pale Ale did.”
Looking back through cultural history, any time there was a divergence from the way things were done, those people doing it differently were criticized. The Impressionists, Jazz musicians, the Beat writers, molecular gastronomy chefs, etc., all faced criticism for their way of doing things. Was one side correct and the other wrong? Not in our opinion. To a classical composer, jazz improvisation is probably not their preference. They prefer a more structured composition and may disapprove of the free-wheeling stylings of jazz. These innovators are just different, not wrong.
And of course, there will be imitators. Just as there is a lot of bad music, food, visual art and poetry, there is also bad beer. Which is why education is so important. We at Craft Beer Cellar are committed to making sure that we are selling good products to you at all times. Education is part of our mission and is why we sample, do blind tastings, talk to brewers and do what we can to stay on top of this dynamic industry. Is turbid beer bad? Sometimes, and sometimes not. It’s just not that black and white.
Tetreault says, “We don’t brew our beers to be turbid or to have a specific appearance for that matter; appearance for us is simply a natural outcome from the intention around the flavor, aroma, mouthfeel we design in a given beer. The natural appearance that results from this approach has become something that we associate with these beers, so we begin to expect them. As a result, they’ve become inherently and intuitively beautiful to us and a lot of our fans. Everyone has their own preferences, and I can respect how they weigh appearance into the overall enjoyment (or lack of) in a given beer.”
Meyers agrees, “I would say that for me, personally, I prefer not to drink something that looks bad to me. Period. Does it matter to me if you want to consume something that doesn’t look appealing? Only if you enjoy to such an extent that you then begin to denigrate those quality beers which offer stability and clarity, and dismiss them out of hand. The question of a compromise in the integrity of beer has little to do with how clear or turbid a brewer’s beer is. It has to do with willful obfuscation of the brewer’s intent and/or abilities, and the quality of their beer. And it’s too easy for every person to see no further than the end of their own nose, and to dance around definitions of words like quality to suit themselves. Part of the perpetual human condition, I suppose.”
John Kimmich probably speaks for most brewers when he says, “I don’t know, I just brew it the way I love it.”
And you know what? We happen to love it, too.