Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - June 2012
A move to embrace hazy cask beer risks reversing decades of work on improving standards of cellarmanship
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 real ale.
Fortunately, things have greatly improved now. Many brewers, including Robinson’s, have introduced 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 real ale 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, recently there has been 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 of Somerset put forward a motion to the 2012 AGM of brewers’ organisation SIBA that it should remove clarity as a requirement for beer competitions. It was passed, albeit watered down to say that not all beer styles required clarity.
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. It has been described by prominent beer blogger Tandleman as a “silly kind of artisanal snobbery”. If this view becomes widespread, there is a real risk of undoing twenty years of promoting good cellar practice and putting a whole new generation off cask beer.
The vast majority of real ale is intended to be served clear, and with vanishingly few exceptions, a cloudy pint is a sign of a brewing fault or 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 obviously not up to scratch, 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 drunk.
Many of you will have been in the position where you order a pint in an unfamiliar pub, and it comes out borderline cloudy, 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 not going to be any good. 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.