Beer Buzz: Filtered vs. Unfiltered Brews

Written by Andy Ingram for azcentral.com

You wouldn't think that something as seemingly mundane as filtration could elicit such strong emotions amongst brewers and beer drinkers, but it does. Image courtesy Thinkstock
You wouldn’t think that something as seemingly mundane as filtration could elicit such strong emotions among brewers and beer drinkers, but it does.

The underlying question is whether beer should be brilliantly clear — or “bright,” in brewer’s parlance — or if it’s OK to have a beer that’s hazy, even cloudy. This excludes, of course, American wheat beers and hefeweizens, which are cloudy according to style.

Filtration is a difficult, time-consuming task done with expensive machines. When you filter a beer, you are removing any remaining yeast and a great deal of proteins and tannins, as well as some free-floating hop material to achieve a brilliant, clear beer.

There are ways to get pretty bright beer without filtration. The simplest is to let the beer sit at near freezing temps for a period of time sufficient enough for those particles to sink to the bottom. It’s a long process but it can be sped up by clarifiers, or fining agents, of various origins, including the swim bladders of certain fish. Yes, swim bladders.

I have pretty strong opinions about bright beer, but I was taught to brew by English brewers; they believed that if a beer was presented to a patron with even a slight haze that it should be returned, with some criticism of the cellarman or the brewer for not delivering a quality product. It just wasn’t tolerated. That point was driven home to the extent that I insist all of our beers at Four Peaks be bright. For us, that means filtering.

Are we perfect every time? Not always, but we make the effort. We believe that before you can smell or taste a beer, you look at it. If it’s not visually appealing, it can change your overall perception. There’s just something pleasing and inviting about the way a brilliantly clear beer catches the light.

Recently, the notion of bright beer seems to have lost its importance, especially among some American craft brewers, particularly in the Northwest. Honestly, despite my strong opinions, I don’t mind this. If a brewery chooses not to filter, that’s its prerogative. I think the idea behind not filtering is that unfiltered beer is somehow better, more natural, or even more healthful, than filtered beer. It’s not. It’s just different.

If you’re interested in trying a local unfiltered beer, the newly opened Phoenix Ale Brewery is proudly hanging its hat on the practice (or un-practice) with Fretzy’s Unfiltered Ale. It’s good, and although it doesn’t cloud my opinion of bright beer, it’s clear proof that unfiltered beer is good beer just the same.

Andy Ingram is owner and brewmaster of Tempe’s Four Peaks Brewery. Reach him at andy@fourpeaks.com. Follow him on Twitter (@fourpeaksbrew) or Facebook.