The Newly-Coveted Cloudiness

Something weird is going on. In the past six months or so, there has been a mad rush to hefeweizen-cloudy IPAs. Not just IPAs with a hop shimmer, but densely opaque, milky beers. It's odd for a few reasons, but mostly because the cloudiness is a visual symbol for a kind of beer marked by intense fruitiness and hop flavor, generally with low bitterness--qualities that don't derive from the cloudiness. (It's also odd because though hazy IPAs have been around for twenty years, the idea of haziness strikes many people as entirely novel.)  But things are getting even weirder:

Along with Fieldwork's help, we've begun looking at some of the beers under the miscrocope and it turns out that some of them are yeast bombs. There are allegations of flour being added to beers. And then there's a possiblity that *when* you dry-hop is a big deal.  
Well, now one prominent brewer has admitted to using flour. 

Follow the link if you want the lowdown--the brewer in question also uses lactose and green apple puree. I have no idea how widespread this is, but I find it absolutely fascinating. It is a perfect example of culture driving beer style development, and it's happening in real time right before our eyes.

Credit: Kim Knox Beckius

The process must have gone something like this. First you have a beer like Heady Topper, which is a grimy, grungy looking thing, but which has this transfixing quality of hoppiness--fresh and alive, with a bigger emphasis on the flavors and aromas of hops than bitterness, which creates a sense of fruit-juice intensity. Fans go crazy. Other breweries make similar beers (though I think nobody's were as murky as those early Headys), using different hop varieties and balancing the flavors, aromas, and bitterness in different ways. Fans go crazy for these, too. In the drinkers' minds, all the visual, aroma, and flavor elements are fused. The look of the beer is taken to be an important element in creating its taste and smell. We know the human mind is a fickle, lying instrument, and no doubt people's parietal and occipital lobes are telling them that those cloudy beers do taste better, dammit. It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that ... murk.

Breweries, in turn, make sure to leave the haze in. Since more is always better, and since the conflation of appearance and flavor has already been made, breweries not only do everything they can to goose the flavor of a beer, but also its chunky appearance. And this, of course, confirms the suspicions of the drinker that the chunkier the beer, the more it tastes juicy and delish. Ta da! Now we have the hand of culture guiding things, an unexpected feedback loop that has created strange-looking beers.

When you wander into something so distinctly cultural as this from the outside, it's obvious. I've spent a bit of time following the debate about the haze's import to the flavor and aroma, and found proponents' arguments unpersuasive. Hops may leave a bit of haze, but not chunks or billowing clouds--that comes from yeast cells and protein. And these help create juiciness how? Whether or not there is some thin reed of science supporting this link, it's sundered with the addition of other chunkifying ingredients like flour. This is purely visual--you might as well be dyeing it green. People like the haze because it seems to have something to do with the other things they like.

And guess what? There's absolutely nothing wrong with weirdness like this. Half of the classic styles we revere are products of cultural weirdness. After a period of outlaw apostasy, these styles become codified as standards, and we add them, like precious gems, to our canonical collection. Hefeweizen with isoamyl acetate and clove phenols--absolutely critical to style. Witbier with coriander--mandatory. Irish stout and roasted barley--yes and yes. Of course, these are actually all preferences, agreed upon after the fact. There is no law demanding they be so, except the ones we put in place after canonization.

I have no idea if the cloudy thing is here to stay, but if it is, there's really no reason why breweries shouldn't add flour or lactose--or who knows, pumice and ash. In fifty years, we'll be describing that flour as a regional quirk that is critical to developing the characteristic mouthfeel that accentuates the juicy flavor profile. Style guidelines will stipulate that only wheat or barley flour may be used, because quinoa or spelt flour would just, you know, be weird.

I guess what I'm saying is, viva la weirdness. This is how things develop, and it's a good thing.