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What is Unfiltered Beer?

What is Unfiltered Beer?

Nothing gets beer geeks and connoisseurs riled up these days like a strikingly hazy New England IPA. There’s something about the opaque, orange-yellow liquid that sends craft beer enthusiasts into a tizzy. Many a skeptic has been won over with a whiff of that insanely fruity aromatic punch. Hazy IPAs are not the only beers that qualify as unfiltered, as the venerable Kellerbier style, as well as various Witbiers, Berliner Weisses and other sour offerings are also unfiltered. So what exactly is an unfiltered beer and why are these styles among the most popular in the world right now?

Filtration can be performed through various methods depending on beer style. For example, beer can be filtered by passing through a caked or powdered substance in order to filter out any brewing particulates that occur. One common filter is finings, which can sometimes include swim bladders of fish as a filtering agent.

If a beer is lautered ‒ a process in which the mash is separated into the clear liquid wort and the residual grain ‒ the grain bed serves as its own filtering agent. In a lager beer, gravity filters the beer with many particulates falling to the base of a bright tank. Cold filtering is another option: lower temperatures during filtration cause proteins to lump together, making them easier to remove.
Photo Courtesy Bissell Bros. Brewing Co.

foundation brewing co. epiphany can
Nothing gets beer geeks and connoisseurs riled up these days like a strikingly hazy New England IPA, such as Foundation Brewing Co.'s Epiphany Maine IPA. 
Photo Courtesy John Bonney

Unfiltered beers used to be incorrectly thought of as dirty or unfinished. Crystal clear pilsners and lagers won the beauty contest in the early days of American craft brewing, as the striking image of a light yellow, champagne-like pils is still perhaps the most evocative beer image to the masses. But at what cost?

Sure, those lagers are technically demanding to brew and are certainly thirst-quenching, but by filtering beers heavily, complexity of both flavor and aroma are lost in favor of appearance – a shallow reason to deaden a beer’s sensory impact.

Perhaps the oldest example of an unfiltered beer still produced today is Kellerbier (or Zwickel Lager), which means “cellar beer” because it was stored in cool cellars or caves during maturation.

Brauerei C. & A. Veltins’ Grevensteiner Original, which is now available stateside in cans, was one of the first modern iterations of this style. Grevensteiner pours with a very minimal foam stand and has a soft, malty mouthfeel eschewing bitterness in favor of a “complex flavor that is first dominated by caramel with a slight undertone of honey, roasted almonds, and fresh fruity flavors of green apple,” according to the brewery. Another well-crafted Kellerbier example is Summit Brewing Co.'s 30th Anniversary Keller Pils, which was one of our highest-rated beers of 2016

Sünner Brauerei kellerbier glass sits atop a bar
Perhaps the oldest example of an unfiltered beer still produced today is Kellerbier, like this example from Sünner Brauerei. 
Photo Courtesy Flickr/Dan K

Perhaps the singular word that expresses the greatest difference between filtered and unfiltered beers is “soft.” Nowhere is that softness more apparent in unfiltered beers than the strikingly different approaches taken to American IPAs in recent years.

The single most notable style parameter for American IPAs and Double IPAs throughout their history has been that lip-smacking snap of bitterness that occurs due to an immense IBU quotient as well as an often hearty malt bill to balance out the heavily hopped style.

Aggressive, powerful West Coast IPAs from such breweries as Stone, Russian River, AleSmith, Elysian and others are all notable for their massively bitter flavor profile. Stone’s Ruination line, for example, played on the idea that its massive bitterness levels would “ruin” a palate (in a good way, of course).

All of these beers were uniformly filtered and were a crystal clear bright orange color with an immense, frothy head of tan or beige bubbles.

However, as has been the case throughout modern craft beer’s history, the pendulum swung quickly in response to these beers. Though there is still a thriving market for heavily filtered West Coast IPAs that showcase classic American hops, unfiltered IPAs (often called Hazy IPAs) with new-school hops that feature a far juicier aroma and flavor profile are becoming the new norm in IPA production ‒ and they may even be opaque from lack of filtering.

These Hazy IPAs focus on an extremely soft and easy-to-drink mouthfeel that jettisons the trademark bitterness that was the hallmark of the IPA style for decades. Instead, Hazy IPAs blast drinkers with tremendous juicy, fruity and resiny aromas and flavors drawn from the various hop varietals employed.

These unfiltered Hazy IPAs are often called New England IPAs because they were pioneered in that region, starting with The Alchemist in Vermont, with its Heady Topper DIPA and Focal Banger IPA. Similarly, Lawson’s Finest Liquids (also in Vermont), was ahead of the game with its hazy Sip of Sunshine IPA and Double Sunshine Double IPA.

lawson's finest liquids sip of sunshine ipa can, glass and sticker
Unfiltered Hazy IPAs are often called New England IPAs because they were pioneered in that region, starting with The Alchemist and Lawson’s Finest Liquids with its hazy Sip of Sunshine IPA. 
Photo Courtesy Lawson's Finest Liquids

It must be noted that these while these beers were the standard bearers for unfiltered, hazy and hop-forward IPAs, they have been left in the dust (no pun intended) by the hordes of hazy ales that followed in their footsteps. Though still extremely popular and highly regarded, the market is reaching a saturation point when it comes to Hazy IPAs. 

In pursuit of novelty and new taste experiences, brewers continue to innovate in the sphere of unfiltered beers, especially within Hazy IPAs. Milkshake IPAs, FLIPAs (Florida-style IPAs) and glitter beers are three fascinating spin-offs of unfiltered IPAs:

omnipollo and tired hands mango double milkshake ipa

Milkshake IPA – Invented in 2015 by Jean Broillet IV of Tired Hands Brewing Co. as a collaboration with Sweden’s Omnipollo, Milkshake IPAs are extremely hoppy but are brewed with lactose sugar and oats to further foreground the unfiltered aspect of the base IPA and provide an exceptionally creamy, smooth mouthfeel. Beyond that, the fruit-forward hops are often combined with fruits or fruit purees to add even more sweetness to an already juicy and fruity IPA concoction. 
Photo Courtesy Twitter / Tired Hands Brewing

green bench brewing co. florida-style ipa

FLIPA – Florida-style IPAs originated with the tremendous brewing team at Green Bench Brewing Co. in St. Petersburg, Florida, as a hybrid between an unfiltered Hazy IPA and a sour IPA, another burgeoning IPA spinoff that originated in Colorado and became popular further west. FLIPAs showcase an immense amount of fruit in the aroma and flavor, and most examples are brewed with fruit puree. Most of Green Bench’s examples also bridge the gap between fruity and sour, using fruits such as grapefruit, blood orange, cherry and guava that can be used for both tart character as well as fruitiness.
Photo Courtesy Twitter / Green Bench Brewing

council brewing co. glitter beer

Glitter beers – A rather gimmicky style that has grown in stature thanks its exposure on social media platforms like Untappd and Instagram, glitter beers are most often unfiltered Hazy IPAs that have been brewed with something called luster dust – a blend of sugar, maltodextrin and mica-based iridescent pigments – creating a swirling vortex of pixie dust in your glass. Don’t worry, it’s FDA-approved! A few notable examples of glitter beer have come from Three Weavers Brewing, Sasquatch Brewing, Pelican Brewing, Council Brewing and Black Cloister
Photo Courtesy Twitter / Council Brewing

Though IPAs are clearly the standard bearer for unfiltered beers in the modern craft beer scene, many sour and wild ales often feature a certain haziness due to the presence of wild yeast or from bottle-conditioning after packaging. The Gose style, which has experienced a modern resurgence due to its drinkability and thirst-quenching elements, is an unfiltered sour beer style that is often cloudy and hazy in appearance. A number of popular sour and wild ales (such as Prairie Artisan Ales Funky Gold Simcoe, Orpheus Brewing’s Serpent Bite and De Proef and Trillium’s Bouket) have gained ground due to another process that benefits from the popularity of hazy beers: dry hopping.

Dry hopping is a brewing process in which hops are added in a secondary tank, usually at a rate of ¼ to ½ ounce per gallon, to provide a massive burst of aroma and flavor in beers that are already overflowing with complexity and delicious elements. Because the hops are not boiled, no oil will be extracted, meaning no bitterness will be picked up from the dry-hopping process – a perfect accompaniment to the New England IPAs that focus more on juicy hop aroma and flavor than bitterness.

Lucky craft beer drinkers can find a wealth of fascinating styles at their local bottles shops these days, with plenty of unfiltered beers among them. Led by hyped-up and hopped-up Hazy IPAs, unfiltered beers are here to stay. #NoFilter

trillium brewing co. galaxy dry hopped fort point pale ale
Dry hopping provides no added bitterness to beers – a perfect accompaniment to New England IPAs that focus more on juicy hop aroma and flavor than sky-high IBU totals.
Photo Courtesy Trillium Brewing Co.



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