Glitter Beer: The Full Report
Seventeen days ago Ground Breaker's Lee Hedgmon posted a mesmerizing, seven-second video of a green beer swirling with bands of something shimmering and sparkling. This was my first encounter with glitter beer, and I was smitten. I began posting about it on Twitter and was surprised to see it spark intense reactions across the board. Glitter, it turns out, gets people talking.
Lee’s beer poured at a Portland festival celebrating women brewers, and one of the beers pouring there, Madeleine McCarthy's Gold Dust Woman (Sasquatch Brewing), also got a glittery incarnation. In a very short time, the entire Rose City was buzzing with reactions--and questions. Is it safe to drink? Can you taste the glitter? Does it have texture? Why was the beer green? What happens on, you know, the other end of the digestive tract? How are they made? I wondered these things as well, and so on Friday I joined Lee and Maddy to get the whole story.
I have spent enough time trying to track down origins of various practices in beer that I know it's usually impossible to identify an ur-source. That seems to be the case with glitter. However, in terms of sparking this current boomlet in them, we can pretty fairly go to to Cat Wiest, currently at Pelican Brewing here in Oregon, but formerly working at Seabright Brewery in Santa Cruz, CA, where her sparkly beers first emerged. She picks up the story from here (which I have clipped for brevity).
My first glitter beer experience was made by Alexandra Nowell (now at Three Weavers). We met at a benefit beerfest unfortunately named “Brewbies.” When I saw that the beer description included ingredients like “love and sparkles,” I didn’t take it literally until I looked in my glass.
I had just taken a head brewing position at a small brew pub, and it was time for me to start getting my GABF entries together. My number one goal was to give my brewery a new reputation, and one of my my many hopes was that I could make a GABF win. I researched all of the beer categories to see where glitter might best give me an edge, and I settled on the “experimental beer” category. I won’t go into too much detail about that beer, but it did end up receiving national attention (no awards though). I continued to make special beers for glitter additions, or just adding glitter to already solid recipes so that I could stand out at festivals.
When you pour a glitter beer at a beer festival, people go nuts. They don’t just slam their four ounces and move on, they engage with the beer. People look into their beer and their faces light up. They get their friends, they take selfies.
According to Emily Engdahl, Executive Director of the Pink Boots Society, Cat did a glitter beer for the 10th Anniversary fest for the group, and that was the moment when her work really seems to have catalyzed a lot of people to brew them.
Let's start with the glitter itself. It is not the same stuff you buy to embed in a thick line of Elmer's glue--craft glitter is plastic, and the shiny stuff is coated with metal. The sparkles you find on cupcakes and in beer is a category known as "edible" glitter, though that name is slightly misleading. Within the category are two types; those that are made entirely from food products, which are less metallic looking ("edible"), and those that are made with mica and metal but which won't harm you ("non-toxic"). As one manufacturer describes their glitter: "Gives subtle color with a high sheen metallic like finish. Contains two or more of the following: Titanium Dioxide, Iron Oxide, Carmine, Mica. Not water soluble."
The US Food and Drug Administration is not particularly hot on that second category. They warn, "If the label simply says 'non-toxic' or for decorative purposes only' and does not include an ingredients list, the product should not be used directly on foods." This seems to be overstating things, though. The glitter made of mica or oxides uses food-based substrates, not plastic, and in a fairly extensive search, I could find not a single case in which "non-toxic" glitter made someone sick. I don't doubt someone with ambition and a spoon could eventually make themselves sick with glitter, but the amount used on food and especially in beer is modest. (The alcohol in beer is far more likely to make you sick than the glitter.)
The types used in beer are the finest, known as "dust." These come in different levels of coarseness, and it seems like the finer the glitter, the easier it stays in aloft in the glass. Since the science of glitter is nascent, brewers are experimenting with amounts. Lee put in just three grams in 30 liters (~8 gals) of Belgian-style tripel--which was made green by the addition of blue curaçao. Maddy used 6 grams in a five-gallon sixtel of IPA, which is--checks math--more. (About three times as much.) Of course, the IPA had more body and was less clear, so Maddy reasoned that she'd need to use more to get a similar effect. The type and amount of glitter needed is variable, and brewers are just starting to learn.
The glitter goes in right before packaging. When I asked why they didn't just dump it into the tank, Maddy said, "I think because everybody said don't do it." She was worried about getting glitter into the carbonation stone--or generally just getting the glitter where it didn't belong. There's the issue of cost, too, which we'll come back around to.
Both of the women were inspired by music. Lee's beer was the most high-concept, starting with a tripel base turned green (St. Paddy's was this past weekend)--and, because she brews at Ground Breaker, it was also gluten-free. Inspired by the song Wrong Bitch by Todrick Hall, it was dubbed Welcome Back to Oz, Bitches. Trying to balance all the elements--the flavors, the color, and the glitter--was not easy. Lee said, "I didn't want heavy glitter, I didn't want it to fall out of suspension, and I didn't want it to change the flavor." She did a great job, and the result was a smooth, sweet ale.
Maddy's made an IPA from recipe she'd been working on for months and it was also inspired by a song--Fleetwood Mac's Gold Dust Woman. Maddy’s Gold Dust Woman is a modern IPA with tons of fruitiness and an expressive personality. You can still buy the un-glittered version, and I recommend looking for it. Both women emphasized that the base beer has to be good; it must stand on its own. You can't just dump glitter into a mediocre beer and expect it to transform the experience, they said.
And yet visuals do transform the experience. What you can't appreciate from still photos is that glitter exposes how dynamic a beer is. The tiny flecks ride the currents in bands and whorls, following the convection of released carbon dioxide or the motion of the drinker's hand. As you look down into the glass, you see it roil and churn. It's riveting. Beyond that, imagine drinking a green, shimmering Belgian tripel and trying to make it track to the taste of, say, Westmalle. It’s an object lesson in how much appearance factors into our mental formulation of “flavor.” The slight breadiness and vivid effervescence have fused in my mind with the qualities that define a tripel; looking at Lee’s beer, I was forced to go back to the basics of what my palate could tell me. The shimmering IPA was a contrasting experience. As a classic juicy ale, of the type that seems to effervesce citrus oils, it has the intensity of a freshly-peeled Satsuma. In this case the glitter seemed to enhance the experience, preparing my mind to pick out those shiny, sparkling flavors.
And here was the surprising part: the dust is far too fine to detect on the palate and has no flavor, so it's entirely a visual effect. Maddy had both versions of her IPA, and I watched as my mind tried to convince my tongue that the little specks had texture, but they don’t.
Of course, brewers have known about visual presentation for centuries. The phrase "color malt" doesn't come from nowhere, nor "head grains" (to enhance head). The success of pilsner in the mid-19th century was due almost entirely to its appearance--and people's ability to see it in the new transparent glasses that were becoming popular at the time. I mean, a brewery doesn't make a beer look like this for no reason:
I was surprised by the hugely gendered response I got Twitter. The number of men who saw photos and responded favorably was very low. In some cases, there was a fear over what the texture or flavor change might be; it reminded some of soap, which admittedly isn't appetizing. But the tone of many critiques was sharp and dismissive. I even heard scoffing from men who felt it was "gimmicky"--even though the current white-hot fad in beer, hazy IPA, is entirely based on appearance. (And it is beloved by men who otherwise fail to notice its gimmickry.)
There's nothing wrong with trying to enhance the appearance of a beer. Maddy said of the reaction: "People love it or hate it or love to hate on it." That seems about like what I discovered on Twitter--with a tilt toward the last category. I did a Twitter poll and only 22% said they were glitter-curious or found them “super cool.” Forty percent said they probably wouldn't try them and 38% were "implacably opposed."
Here’s my challenge to the naysayers: give it a test drive and see if you don't find yourself transfixed staring into a glitter beer's depths. No beer is done justice by a picture alone; you have to experience a beer.
There are three big barriers to this being anything more than a party-time treat. The glitter, as sold now in tiny volumes online, is incredibly expensive. It runs $5 for a 2-gram jar. To put that in perspective, glitter for a ten-barrel batch of Lee's beer would run around $300 and about $900 for Maddy's. (Hope my math is correct there.) Until brewers can find a wholesale source, this is an expensive beer to make.
A second problem is keeping the glitter out of small places in the brewery or getting it into the kegs without having to dose them individually. I suppose a brewery totally committed to making a glitter beer could devote equipment to the purpose, but that may be a ways out.
The biggest challenge is keeping the glitter in solution. Like all particulates, it wants to settle. There are ways to rouse it, but it does require rousing. Maddy suggests storing kegs upside-down until they're ready to serve. If servers notice the glitter volume declining, they need to give the kegs a jostle. (When Cat sent beers to be judged at GABF, judges reported that they didn't find any glitter in them--it had settled out.) Lee is already experimenting with one technique to enhance floating, and brewers committed to glitter will experiment with others. It's early days for all these challenges.
Because of these challenges, I don't expect to see glitter beer in bottles at the grocery store anytime soon (though I predict that the brewery pulling it off will be rewarded with staggering sales). Even finding glittered beer in pubs will be vanishingly rare because of the expense and fussiness required.
But I do expect to see more of them. Perhaps some people will always be committed to disliking glitter beers, but I expect the experience of seeing them live and in person will be irresistible to a far greater number. I am certainly a believer, and I've got my eyes peeled. Glitter beers are, in fact, super cool.