Clearing It Out: Clarity, fining, and recipe decisions

There are any number of debates to be had over the importance and role of clarity in modern craft and homebrewed beer. This isn’t going to be a piece about whether the haze-crazed are right or wrong about haze in particular styles of beer. Instead, let’s start from the proposition that oftentimes brewers are seeking to create generally clear beer. This “Techniques” column will focus on fining options and methods, and a discussion on different approaches to recipe design that take clarity and its effects into consideration.

The Logic of Fining

Fining is typically done at two points in the brewing process, in the brew kettle and in the fermenter, prior to packaging. While fining beer is an optional process, it’s one that brewers should always keep in mind when approaching a recipe.

Strictly speaking, you don’t need to fine your beer. However, there are several reasons to consider fining as a brewing practice that will generally improve the quality of your finished beer. Let’s deal with the easy one first: Appearance.

Fining improves clarity, and clarity makes for pretty beer. Aesthetics may or may not matter to you, but they might make a big difference to those to whom you serve your beer. So even if a jewel-toned, crystal-clear beer is in no way more desirable to you than a murky beer, you may consider fining it anyway if you plan to present the beer. Perceptions aren’t all about what’s actually there. The power of the mind to distort, augment, alter, and revise our actual perceptions based on what we see and expect is a powerful consideration. If you see a good-looking beer, you’re going to anticipate good flavors, which can actually result in a change in your perceptions. A good-looking beer can still taste bad, and an ugly beer can still blow your mind, but to do so it’s working against your expectations. Why not help them along? Yes, it’s just aesthetics — but that sentiment undermines the value and power of aesthetics in the context of organoleptic evaluation.

Another reason to fine your beer is that the kinds of things that generally cause turbidity — yeast, proteins, and polyphenols — also increase the risk of off-flavor development. The presence of both biological and non-biological causes of haze can contribute to a variety of effects, including accelerated staling and production of off-flavors and precursors (think acetaldehyde, autolyzed yeast, dimethyl sulfide, diacetyl, etc). Stability can be a challenge for homebrewers. Fining allows us to take some of the causes of instability down a notch, if not off the table completely. While some methods of promoting stability are beyond most homebrewers’ capabilities (pasteurization), others (fining and CO2 flushing) are not, and should be leveraged as much as possible to keep your beer tasting like the beer you made for as long as possible!

Finally, fining is a way to promote consistency in your beers. Contributors to haze or turbidity may vary significantly with each batch, even within the same recipe. A certain grain may have higher protein content, a batch of hops may contribute more or less polyphenol content, a yeast pitch might be more or less flocculant than another; and when such things happen your output will vary. Fining helps narrow the variability across several dimensions, leaving a more-replicable beer in your fridge. Think of it in the same context as pre-heating your mash tun with boiling water — you don’t want warm air in summer or cool air in winter to make you miss your target mash temps, right? The same logic applies here.

Begin As You Mean To Go On

I’m fond of the saying, “begin as you mean to go on.” The logic goes that good habits should be established at the outset. It’s the first day of class in a middle school music classroom. A student enters and immediately hits some keys on the piano despite a “do not touch” sign. The teacher decides to let it slide since, after all, it’s “just the first day.” That teacher has just established a norm that rules in the classroom are unevenly enforced. Instead, s/he should correct the student, first day or not. Begin as you mean to go on.

In that same vein, fining (or at least the process of producing clear/clearer beer) starts during beer conceptualization, and continues through packaging. If clear beer is your goal, you should take every chance you can get to gain ground on your beer’s clarity.

First, shop around for grain with a lower overall protein content. This will require that you learn to read a malt analysis (a quick primer on total protein, soluble proteins, and FAN levels will have you “malt analysis literate” in no time!). Not every malt purchased by homebrewers necessarily comes with access to a malt analysis, but it certainly isn’t uncommon these days. A recent review of malt analyses conducted by yours truly found these numbers can vary significantly from maltster to maltster and from batch to batch. Short version: Always check the malt analysis sheet.

We can also think about our hops. Hops themselves can be a source of haze, thanks either to their own polyphenol contributions. Combining polyphenols with existing proteins can create a colloidal haze, particularly after dry hopping. In choosing hops, set yourself up to add as little plant material as possible and you’ll add fewer polyphenols. Choose high-alpha acid bittering hops to reduce the amount of polyphenols added while maintaining the bittering level desired. Hop extracts are another route brewers can look at.

Next, take a look at your yeast strain. For clearer beer, select a yeast with high flocculation levels. More British strains fall into this category than any other, and many will drop brilliantly clear of yeast in very short order with almost no additional fining on your part. Be advised, though, that high levels of flocculation are often associated with flavors or outcomes that we will need to account for or actively avoid: These include diacetyl, higher levels of esters, and lower levels of attenuation. Less time in suspension means the yeast could struggle to complete their work. Increased temperature at the end of the active fermentation and rousing of the trub/yeast bed are ways to limit those affects.

Even water chemistry can get into the clarity game. Calcium — already necessary to promote healthy fermentation and flavor stability — also tends to encourage clarity in beer. Fifty parts-per-million are recommended, and if that level is not achieved you run the risk of creating calcium oxalate, a crystalline substance that will deflect light and create turbidity. If you’re struggling with clarity and you haven’t checked a water report recently, it can’t hurt to take a look at your calcium levels.

Trust the Process

Steps can be taken to promote clarity during the hot side of the brewing process. If you’re concerned about high protein content of a mash you might consider a protein rest in your mashing schedule. This is an added step whereby you initially raise your mash to about 125 °F (52 °C) for about twenty minutes, prior to raising to saccharification temperatures. At that temperature, enzymes are created which cut down larger proteins into smaller chunks, theoretically reducing protein haze later in the process. However, it should be noted that this can have adverse flavor effects, making the beer taste watery or dilute (John Palmer, How to Brew), while potentially doing little to improve clarity. Having said that, many brewing practices are aggregate in nature. It’s certainly possible that the protein rest alone may not improve clarity, but in combination with other steps it may accomplish significant improvement.

Once that wort is out of the mash tun (or if you’re simply brewing an extract beer), you also have mid-boil options to improve clarity — kettle fining. This is accomplished by adding a product like Whirlfloc or Irish moss or Super Moss HB to the boil. These seaweed derivatives promote precipitation and coagulation of proteins, reducing their overall levels in your wort. Added towards the end of the boil (5–15 minutes remaining), they can promote clarity before the wort reaches the fermenter.

Next, consider your cleaning and sanitation regimen. It’s safe to assume that you’re cleaning and sanitizing well for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with promoting clarity. But contaminated beers often show signs of turbidity and using old, suspect fermenters should be avoided.

Temperature management at the conclusion of fermentation is the next process to examine. After steadily increasing temperatures to promote full attenuation and yeast clean-up duties — for such things like diacetyl — adding a cold-crash step can promote further coagulation and clarification. Dropping the beer to 30–40 °F (-1–4 °C) will cause proteins, polyphenols, and yeast alike to drop out of suspension, resulting in clearer beer.

We can now consider some cold-side fining additions. Two common options are gelatin and isinglass, with a slight advantage to isinglass. Both are animal-derived products — so these are off-limits for those who want vegan beer — that promote the precipitation of proteins and polyphenols in beer. They provide a “polish” to beers with a residual haze. Isinglass, however, also promotes flocculation of yeast. One reason that gelatin is a more common choice among homebrewers, though, is that it’s fairly easy to use. Isinglass, by comparison, can be a bit more labor-intensive. Another cold-side fining option is silic acid. This is the ingredient in such products as Kerry’s Biofine Clear (which is animal-product-free), which has become extremely popular with craft brewers and is available to homebrewers.

For those that want to take it the extra step, homebrewers can now also filter their beer clear. Keep in mind, though, that in doing so you’re eliminating the option of bottle conditioning, since one of the things you’ll be filtering out is the yeast!

Last, but certainly not least (and this is among the only clarifying steps taken by many brewers), is time. Over time, nearly all sources of turbidity — proteins, tannins/polyphenols, yeast, chill haze, basically anything except microbial contamination — will drop out of your beer, leaving behind a crystal-clear product. Lagering (cold storage, for weeks or months at a time) is a legitimate approach to achieve clarity. This last option raises a concern that is hardly unique to “time and gravity,” though: Flavor impacts. On that front, it’s often a good idea to revisit the recipe (one more time).

Back to the Recipe

We began at the recipe, and we end with the recipe. Any time we take something out of the beer, we’re probably taking flavor with it. As a result, fining requires that we adjust our recipes to account for the downstream changes we will make to the beer. We can best consider these adjustments by thinking about each flavor perception in turn, and adjusting our recipes accordingly.

For reasons I’ve never entirely understood, many get caught up in discussions of mouthfeel when considering clarity. Although I’ve never noted any particular mouthfeel difference in my own fined beers, I recognize that (hewing to the principle regarding perceptions) it’s something we should account for. The good news is that while protein loss can certainly create thinner, more dilute-feeling beer, we can compensate with the addition of unfermentable sugars. Increasing the weight of crystal malts in the recipe or adding maltodextrin powder or lactose (if you also want some sweetness) will increase body in the beer. The same can be said of increasing carbonation for a fuller mouthfeel, if you find your beers are feeling a bit too thin.

For those experiencing head formation or retention issues, fining could be the source of the problem. Consider recipe additions of flaked grains (flaked barley is my preferred addition) to increase your overall level of head-forming proteins without (hopefully) adding excessive amounts of haze-forming proteins. This is a battle that can be tough to win, though, since fining agents draw no particular distinction between the two. One approach that may be helpful is to focus on using fining agents that specifically target polyphenol haze. You may promote sufficient clarity while leaving sufficient head-forming proteins behind.

Nowhere, though, does clarity bump into flavor more than in the contributions from hops. If using an especially flocculant yeast and/or filtering, increase your total bittering and flavor targets. Hop oils and isomerized acids cling to yeast (especially non-isomerized oils derived from dry hops, which haven’t yet “bonded” to molecules in the beer), and the more yeast we remove, the less flavor and bitterness will carry through to the finished beer. Clear beer comes at a cost, for hops.

Your Beer Is Fine(D)

Once again, it is not a requirement that you fine your beer. To the extent that you do, though, you’ll be happier with the results when you match and adjust your ingredients, recipes, and process to the final product you hope to produce.

Issue: March-April 2019