The Foggy and Flavorful World of Unfiltered Beers

Unfiltered Beers
Photo by Meg Baggott

Around five years ago, Sixpoint Brewery Cofounder Shane Welch attended a natural wine festival. There, he sipped through some 20 wines, each one as cloudy as a cataract, their flavors raw and vibrant.

“I’d had murky beer my entire life, but I’d never sat down and drank murky wines,” Welch says. To him, the connection to beer was as clear as day.

Early Sixpoint ales like Sweet Action were foggy affairs that stood in stark contrast to the typical see-through lagers of the time. Over the years, Sixpoint grew and began to filter their beers. It created a clearer, more shelf-stable product, but at what cost?

“There’s always a tradeoff, and that tradeoff is usually at the expense of flavor and aroma,” says Welch.

This spring, Sixpoint reversed course and ceased filtration, and ales like its Resin Imperial IPA gained a hazier hue.

The brewery is one of many that are now foregoing filtration. Many see murk as a way to create differentiation in look, scent and taste. But it could also be considered a return to form.

“This is not a new concept for the brewing industry,” says Damian McConn, chief brewing officer at Summit Brewing Co.

Historic styles like hefeweizens, naturally carbonated cask ales and German kellerbiers are brimming with yeast, as are bottle-conditioned beers. These microbes impart a cloudier complexion before eventually settling, adding a more robust flavor to the resulting brew.

Modern filtration took root in the late 19th century, as beer transformed into a widely distributed commodity.

“Having really clear, bright beer in a pint glass was a sign of a brewer making solid beer,” says Summit’s McConn. “They weren’t being sloppy or lazy.”

Last year, Summit released an unfiltered, German-style Keller Pils. “We retain as much of the character as possible,” he says.

Unfiltered lagers like Urban Chestnut’s Zwickel and Switchback’s Citra-Pils Keller Bier are increasingly commonplace, but fragrant, juicy New England IPAs have become the poster children for the anti-filtration set. They’re marked by massively fruity fragrances, minimal bitterness and appearances that, at some extremes, resemble orange juice.

IPAs from Massachusetts’ Tree House and Trillium breweries, Brooklyn’s Other Half and Maine’s Bissell Brothers have fans lining up for hours to snag newly released cans.

SingleCut Beersmiths, based in Queens, New York, specializes in intensely hopped IPAs like its tropical Softly Spoken Magic Spells and piney Full-Stack, canned fresh and unclarified.

“There’s no mistaking the impact of the fresh hop flavor and aroma that you get from something that’s not been filtered,” says SingleCut Head Brewer Rich Buceta.

Other established breweries have also been climbing into the clouds. Stone Brewing’s super-fresh Enjoy By IPA series is prominently labeled “unfiltered,” while Ballast Point recently released an unfiltered version of its flagship Sculpin IPA, which upped its aromatic oomph and decreased bitterness.

“We think [the “unfiltered” label] communicates a sense of greater flavor and aroma in the IPA,” says James Murray, Ballast Point’s vice president of brewing. “Letting some of the yeast carry over creates new complexities in these IPAs.”

The Wine Connection

Winemakers are also abandoning filtration, most notably with buzzy, fizzy pét-nats and other natural wines.

“In the wine world, on the small end, you do all you humanly can to not filter,” says William Allen, the owner/winemaker of Two Shepherds. He focuses on minimal-intervention wines fermented with native yeast, with filtration mostly as a no-no.

“Imagine that you could walk through a screen door and then reassemble on the other side, the impact that would have on your body,” he says. “Wine undergoes a pretty significant shock during filtration.”

Two Shepherds whites are always unfiltered, while the reds are evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Allen tests samples for microbial contagions like wild Brettanomyces yeast, or any other flaws that can be fixed with sterile filtration.

“If I’m bottle-aging a red for years, I make a roll of the dice,” says Allen. “Once you sell your wine, you don’t know how consumers will treat it.”

The Risk Factor

Unfiltered beer also brings with it unpredictability. If a yeast-saturated beer like a New England IPA is stored too warm, the yeast could reactivate. At best, it will gush like Old Faithful. At worst, the can or bottle could explode. Also, shelf-life may be significantly reduced, as organic matter left in the bottle will also eventually break down, possibly creating off flavors.

“Anything organic is going to break down and degrade in the package,” says Sixpoint’s Welch. He says that if treated improperly, an unfiltered beer’s flavor can backfire. “It defeats the purpose.”

Sometimes, filtration can be a boon. Take SingleCut’s 19-33 Pilsner. It’s stripped of yeast and haze-producing particles, which creates a crisper lager as luminescent as summer sunshine.

“Even though it shaves off some of the mouthfeel, it’s actually a benefit,” says Buceta.

Nonetheless, in a world full of cookie-cutter, mass-produced options, skipping filtration can be a difference maker. If done with care and intent, it can create beers and wines that separate themselves from the crowd.

“I think the future will be all about connecting people with really raw and authentic products,” says Welch.

Hot Trends Brewing in America's Beer Scene in 2017

5 Unfiltered Beers to Try

Ballast Point Unfiltered Sculpin IPA; 7.0% abv, $13.99/6-pack

Ballast Point’s stingingly tropical Sculpin started as North Star IPA, an unfiltered homebrew recipe. Here, the San Diegans return the recipe to its roots, dialing back the bitterness, and cranking up the fruity aromas.

Brauhaus Riegele Kellerbier; 5.0% abv, $2.99/16oz bottle

The classic German kellerbier (“cellar beer”) is served unpasteurized and packed with yeast that brings distinct fruity aromas, harmonizing well with the beer’s native Hersbrucker hops.

Summit Brewing Keller Pils; 5.1%ABV, 9.99/6-pack

Old school meets new school in this Minnesota brewery’s unfiltered German-style pilsner. The traditional peppery, floral pop of Tettnang hops are balanced by the honeydew hints brought by Huell Melon hops. A touch of honey ties the tasty package together.

Sixpoint Puff; 9.8% abv, $11.99/4-pack cans

To make Puff, the Brooklyn, New York-based brewer takes its Resin double IPA and adds hops like Mosaic and Citra that lend aromas reminiscent of a Pacific Northwest pine forest. Fittingly, unrefined Puff is packaged as cloudy as an Oregon winter.

Hoof Hearted Konkey Dong; 8.5%abv, $14.99/4-pack 16oz cans

Good luck seeing daylight through any of these Ohioans’ opaque hop-socked IPAs. The juicy, arcade game-inspired Konkey Dong is swarmed with Australia’s Galaxy hops and America’s pungent Simcoe variety.

Published on August 7, 2017
Topics: Beer Trends