Just a Phase?

Phil Cook brings some clarity to the haze craze.

As I sit down to write this, I’m finishing off a glass of some newfangled hazy beer from an “independent” brewery not far from here. It’s distinctly murky, which blunts its otherwise-lovely golden colour, but it’s got nice amount of flavour without too much bitterness. I could see myself getting used to it. “Sparkling Ale”, they call it. From a Coopers Brewery in Adelaide, founded as recently as 1862! That’s basically just yesterday, given that we humans have been making beer for some seven-thousand years…

My point, sarcastic but sincere, is that beer has a long history, filled with patterns and cycles and upheavals — and one of the quickest ways to make a fool of yourself is to look at something changing or unfamiliar or new, lose all perspective, and freak out about it.

An excellent example of just that kind of misguided “outrage” can be found in a lot of the reaction to the rise of hazy East Coast (or “Vermont” or “New England”) style IPA. Garage Project’s Party & Bullshit was the first notable local follower of the trend, which was excellently chronicled in this magazine’s Summer 2016 edition by Jono Galuszka. Revisit that piece (it’s online now, like most of Pursuit, if you weren’t already aware) for the style’s history and technical details ― I’m going to focus on the nonsense ways in which its detractors talked about how beer “should” be: how they freaked out about the haze, and how they dismissed it as a fad.

First, the murk. The idea that clarity is a mark of quality is incredibly recent, on any kind of sensible timescale. This is as true of beer as it is of cider or wine; all of them would’ve been significantly cloudy for a huge chunk of their histories. Crystal-clear beer depends on additives and equipment that don’t exactly grow on trees and weren’t just laying around for our ancestors to trip over. The techniques needed to make our drinks easy to see straight through had to be invented; there was a time before them, and they aren’t universal or mandatory.

Before any of us had an East Coast IPA, we probably had a Belgian Wit, or a German Hefe ― or a Coopers Sparkling. There’s nothing “new” or “wrong” about those, is there? Relatively-clear beer has been dominant for around 150 years, but never completely, and 150 years in this business, frankly, just isn’t that impressive or immediately meaningful. Given the long dominance of darker styles and opaque drinking vessels, if we wanted to figure out exactly when clarity became the norm, statistically and aesthetically, we’d need a time machine. I’d rather go see the dinosaurs.

With very few exceptions, haze is simply the side-effect of things done (or not done) for the sake of various flavours. In that way, it’s no different from the colour of beer, and I just can’t remember the last time anyone whinged about how “all beer should be gold”, or brown, or black. If you don’t like these beers because of their flavour or their texture, then (by all means) complain about those factors, not the haze that coincidentally results. But never, ever mistake your preferences for how things should be for everyone or anyone else.

You can see how shallow the clear = quality myth is by the fact that it’s capable of reversing completely. Not long ago, when Coopers Sparkling was the local paragon of “good beer”, Australian brewers got into the habit of fogging up their beers just to emulate it and borrow some of its prestige. Likewise, some brewers of juice-bomb East Coast IPAs exaggerate their haze with additives selected solely for that purpose, and not in pursuit of tastier beer as such. Such trickery is indeed obnoxious, but it’s cheating, not the cloudiness, that offends me.

Second, the “fad” allegation. It’s simply nonsensical to claim that particular turn in the long arc of beer history is less legitimate than any other. On a broader view of things, pilsner hasn’t yet proven itself: despite its current popularity, it’s only been around for about 3% of the time there’s been beer at all. For that matter, beer could just be a passing fancy, human terms: our species has been here for 200,000 years but “merely” brewing for 7,000 or so. Of course, unless we get our act together, humanity itself might prove to only be a brief phase the planet was going through for a while.

The one constant is change. Something can seem carved in stone or built on sand, depending on the perspective you take. Everything that seems “normal” to us was new, and possibly scary, once. If we diverted that time machine of ours, we wouldn’t have to travel back far to find people freaking out about other fads like fizz or hops — as opposed to the gentler bubbles of “traditional” carbonation, or “traditional” bittering ingredients like heather and bog myrtle.

There is no “legit” IPA in a strong enough sense to render any variations from it somehow unworthy. Every attempt at making an “authentic”, historically accurate version of something masks dozens of subconscious choices about which elements to replicate faithfully and which to ignore or update. Beer styles — just like genres of music, film, art, or fiction — evolve through a chaotic combination of gradual, accidental drift and intentional remix and reinvention. In our enjoyment of all our subjective endeavours and matters of taste, it’s normal to think less of things that emerged after we joined the scene; what was here when we arrived seems like the real deal, newcomers seem suspicious. But just because it’s a natural impulse doesn’t mean it’s excusable. Don’t mistake a reflex for an insight. Don’t mistake “I don’t like this” for “it shouldn’t exist”.

Back to The Pursuit of Hoppiness: August 2017

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