In Defense of Clarity

What humans prize is inversely proportional to what is common. Is this a need to desire what others don't have? Do we have a gene that tells us the rare is useful to survival? Whatever the reason, it's an iron law, and one we follow, in the manner of self-parody, back and forth across the decades.

Take for example the industrial age. Machines allowed us to make objects of perfect lines and proportions--by the millions. Where once we made crude cut-shank nails and left saw marks on our wood, now we make perfectly straight and measured boards and hold them together with machine-made nails that will last centuries. At first, these innovations were greeted with greed: dispensing with the evidence of the human hand was a way of transcending our own imperfection. Eventually, of course, mass-production reduced costs and made these products ubiquitous. Soon our ardor cooled. These once-perfect objects began to seem cheap and disposable. When the artisanal movement emerged as a reaction against the impersonal factory age, products again revealed the makers' hand--and made customers' eyes gleam with desire. Where once we saw imperfection, now we see character and personality.

Which brings us to brewing. The very idea of "craft beer" is a reaction against mass-produced factory stuff. There's a lot of romance involved with this (almost entirely false) dichotomy between craft and industrial, but it is powerful. The more a beer can be tied to images of barns, a sea of swaying barley stalks, and a brewer deep in a mash tun with a canoe oar, the more we can attach that romance to it. In the glass, however, a beer is a beer is a beer. Some may be good, some bad, but it's impossible to look at a glass of beer and know the size of brewery it came from.

I'm pretty sure this is where the current fetish for cloudy, hazy, milkshakey beer comes from. It's a visual cue that says: I am craft. A perfectly brilliant beer not only looks like something that comes from a factory, it is in many ways the product of decades of technical improvement. Most of what causes haze is not desirable in beer, but a lot of it was unavoidable or at least hard to remove in centuries past. Lager-brewing was prized in part because the process produced a bright beer that stood as testament to the brewer's skill. Any beer that was perfectly bright would be likely be free of infection and age. In a real way drinkers could see the quality.

Over time, though, that clarity became associated with lackluster flavor. People began to imagine that the brewer was intentionally trying to filter out anything tasty. To people drinking modern ales, a bit of haze represented the flavor a brewer left in the beer. And, if a bit of haze suggests more flavor, a beer perfectly opaque with chunks must have the most flavor, you feel me?

Patrick, overcome with lust.

Patrick, overcome with lust.

This post, now already five hundred words long, is not actually about taking sides. I don't dispute that there's something strangely attractive about the most cloudy beers--they're like an orange milkshake topped by a scoop of vanilla ice cream. (It's no wonder Bavarian weissbiers have been rolling along for four hundred years.) Rather, I'd just like to put in a plug for clarion, haze-free beers.

As a matter of aesthetics, the perfect beer is somewhere between gold and ruby, luminously vitreous, and stippled by a cascade of pinpoint bubbles. I also like darker beers that appear opaque until you hold them to the light and see that brilliance within, like light refracting through a jewel. It's a secret the brewer's hidden for the careful drinker to discover. Anyone who's brewed so much as a batch of homebrew knows that clarity is hard, and so the mind naturally wants to see it as a symbol for good process. I don't mean to praise clarity through that lens, though. A bright, coruscating beer is a gorgeous thing on its own. People who know nothing about beer can stop to appreciate its beauty. Remove beer entirely from all context--if it's bright and limpid, it's as gorgeous as a mountain lake, something anyone with eyes can appreciate.

Incidentally, that beer at the top of the post is a pilsner brewed by Grain Station out in McMinnville. I took that picture at the end of the year and have been meaning to get around to writing this post. It was such a gorgeous beer, so elegant and lovely, and it's stuck in my mind for six weeks now. (It was also very well made and tasty--sort of a hybrid Czech and German pils.) I guess my message here is not to be too blinded by lust for cloudy IPAs that you cannot stop to admire the captivating beauty of a perfectly clear beer.