Don't Haze me Bro! By: Kay Witkiewicz
Whether you like it or not, appearance matters as much in homebrewing as it does in the real world. A well-crafted beer should not only taste and smell great, but also look the part, and while pilsner should always be star bright, debates and preferences abound for other beer styles. Homebrew haze has non-biological sources, mainly in the form of colloidal haze, which occurs when one substance is suspended in another, and biological sources in the forms of yeast and bacteria. Although fining agents, such as Irish moss, are able to clear up your brew, they also tend to strip away flavor. Haze is not bad—it usually has no ill gustatory effect on your beer—it’s just a cosmetic inconvenience that can be successfully negotiated.
Colloidal haze is generally the result of proteins binding to polyphenols, and it’s either present permanently or only temporarily. Malt is a source for both proteins and polyphenols, whereas hops solely add the latter. While proteins are prized for their enzymatic contribution and their ability to provide body, mouthfeel, and head retention in the finished beer, polyphenols merely impart a perception of astringency. In any case, colloidal haze is a completely natural byproduct of necessary ingredients in brewing beer and not an omen of poor taste.
Moreover, this type of haze may only be present briefly if it is in the form of a chill haze. Formed at near freezing temperatures, cloudy beer becomes clear again as it warms up because the molecular bonds holding the haze-causing agents together gradually dissolve. Permanent haze, on the other hand, demands proactive solutions. Theoretically, a protein rest between 113 and 131 degrees Fahrenheit during your mash schedule would allow enzymes to digest excess proteins, thus somewhat minimizing polyphenols’ potential partners. However, by potentially stripping your beer of its head and backbone, the risk of a protein rest may outweigh the reward of a bright beer. Not to mention, this procedure is not a surefire way to combat permanent colloidal haze.
Instead, adding fining agents, such as Irish moss, during the last few minutes of your boil will give you a better chance at clear beer. Irish moss is a type of edible seaweed that causes proteins to coagulate and settle out of your wort/beer, thus leaving you with a bright beverage. After a disconcerting encounter with a muddled and overwhelmingly bitter wee heavy (thankfully it came into its own after a little time), I used Irish moss to ensure a proper appearance in an IPA. Despite the fining’s foul smell and its propensity to give my beer the somewhat exaggerated look of curdled milk, it settled everything quite nicely by the time I was ready to rack and bottle. Be aware, though, that fining agents may affect the intensity of certain flavors in your beer, and in retrospect I wonder if my IPA would have more of a bitter bite to it had I not used Irish moss. Ultimately, if you’re worried about colloidal haze, Irish moss is your best bet, but if you could care less whether or not you can read a newspaper through your beer or not, just drink up and enjoy!
Biological haze incurred through yeast or bacteria is even easier to manage than colloidal haze. Unless the beer you’re brewing calls for it, the presence of bacteria is usually an ominous sign of spoilage. Due to its alcohol content, lack of oxygen, and low pH, beer is inhospitable to most bacteria and the simplest way for the homebrewer to prevent any precarious incursions of these organisms is to practice sound cleaning and sanitizing routines. Yeast, however, is ubiquitous throughout your homebrew, whether you see it or not. Still, several handy methods will allow you to pour an unclouded beer. It all starts with a careful racking procedure. During fermentation, your yeast grows substantially, leaving a rich, thick cake at the bottom of your fermentor. By inserting your racking cane just above this mass you maximize the amount of beer siphoned into your keg or bottling bucket and you minimize the transfer of yeast slurry. Even though your beer will rack clear, there will still be enough yeast in suspension to carbonate your brew naturally with a sugar solution. Another way to pour a clear beer is simply by decanting it out of the bottle and into a glass right after you take it out of the fridge. Although your beer is unlikely to have reached its proper serving temperature, the bottle’s frigid state will keep the yeast settled at the bottom, allowing the beer to pour bright. Beer warms up faster in a glass than in a bottle, so serving it straight out of the fridge may test the head retention of your creation as it reaches drinking temperature, but at least it avoids a cloudy presentation. Biological sources of haze are easily combatable with diligent cleaning and sanitizing regimes as well as careful post-fermentation handling of your brew.
Personally, I don’t mind hazy homebrew. I find haze to be a rather charming sign of craftsmanship that defies superficiality in favor of full flavor and unpretentious presentation. However, if only a bright beer will do for you, fining agents, such as Irish moss, will coagulate colloidal haze-forming proteins and precipitate them out of your beer. To prevent biological haze, vigorous cleaning and sanitizing, a deft touch during racking, and a swift pour after your beer exits the fridge will deter yeast and bacteria from clouding your brew. Haze is a natural byproduct of brewing and perhaps, like me, you are already so used to it that the sight of a completely clear beer actually startles, or even disconcerts, you. It’s easier to embrace the haze than to fight it, but if you choose to be valiant, you now know what to do.