Adding Flour to IPAs To Change Appearance

Eno Sarris, January 21, 2016

I'm a terrible homebrewer. I'm no expert. 

But when I saw the following tweet, I contacted the better brewers in my life to ask if they'd ever heard of such a thing. 

We're big fans of the cloudy, grassy, fruity Northeast-Style IPAs here at BeerGraphs. Larry Koestler tried to define the style, and I've waxed on about Treehouse and Trillium at different times so far. 

And there's something about the look of the beer that is attractive. Reminiscent of that orange juice creamsicle color that may have first started with Belgian Wits, it's opaque but fluid. For Treehouse's Julius, it really brought the allegory together -- it really looked like an orange julius from the outside. 

That look is important for other reasons. It's the result of the same process that gives the beer great mouthfeel -- the flaked grains mentioned in Koestler's breakdown above. Flaked grains are actually pre-processed, to an extent -- they've been steamed and run through a hot roller mill, so that their starches are gelatinized and the brewer can add the flakes directly to the mash. What also happens from flaked grains is that the resulting beer is usually cloudier

When I did ask the professional brewers I knew, though, nobody had really heard of it. "New to me," one said. "Strikes me as a terrible idea," said another. "Never heard that before." 

That might be because of what happens when you do use flour in your brew. Perusing the homebrew sites talking about using flour, you'll hear it quickly. "Lauter problems." Sparge sucked.

Basically, when you're home brewing, you rely on the grain to 'filter' the wort itself -- the grain falls to the bottom and sticks to itself, and the wort (pre-beer) flows through it or over it. But flour, by being dispersed in the liquid and too fine to act like a grain, thickens the beer and causes the 'filtering' process to slow. Doesn't sound like a process that brewers would willingly undergo. 

But here we are, with a seemingly unsubstantiated and nonspecific charge. 

I did find one June 30 post from Michael Tonsmeire, the Mad Fermentationist, about making a beer called Hop Juice -- a Northeast IPA -- by adding flour to the brew. Tonsmeire is a celebrated homebrewer and beer writer who collaborated to create Modern Times and was a foundational influence on Fieldwork's Alex Tweet. He's basically a pro-am brewer that has decided to not brew professionally. 

Nowhere on the post does it say that he's doing so to change the look of the beer itself. Here's the key passage, with his link, where he suggests it was to manipulate the foam:

I’d read (somewhere) that the proteins in wheat flour are especially foam-positive even compared to flaked wheat, so I wanted to give it a try. I mixed the flour into the milled grain to distribute it, but even at this relatively low amount (half a pound in 10 gallons) the lauter was slower than I’m accustomed to.

So we have that lautering problem again. He seems to be wanting to manipulate the foam, in any case. Then again, here's what the beer looks like when it came out -- straight orange juice.

I don't know what Andy Crouch is talking about, perhaps because my twitter feed has a ton of baseball and a ton of velocity to it, and googling this sort of thing is folly, unless you want to spend hours combing through forum posts. I spent a half hour, and I'm not sure this is a big deal. 

Look, I don't love the idea of shortcuts. I just came out and said that I'd prefer my IPA got its juiciness from the hops instead of fruit juice. I share some (not all) of the outrage that the Food Babe had when she asked Big Beer to share their ingredients. We should know how our beers is made, to some extent. 

But I do know from attending a couple wine museums / tastings that wine has changed a bit over the years. It's now common practice to add in exactly as much tannins as you want, through powder. There are other flavor additives that are now more acceptable. 

And in this case, maybe it's too Inside Baseball for me. It seems to me that beer is the process of making an alcoholic beverage from grains. It's totally accepted to use flaked grains, which are somewhat processed. But we want to draw the line at flour, which is more processed? 

I've listened to brewers talk about how they manipulated the color of their beer, or what they had to do when a beer didn't scale completely correctly. There's a lot of fiddling under the hood in order to make sure we, you know, like the beer we get to drink. And it's not even clear that flour is a great shortcut in this way -- if it screws your filtering process, then it's a terrible shortcut. 

I don't love that Big Beer is putting corn syrup into the beer. It's added to up the final gravity, to give the yeast more sugar to eat. It's not the same thing, but there's lactose in milk stouts to make them sweeter -- it's sugar that doesn't get eaten up into alcohol, and it makes the beer sweeter -- and it doesn't really bug me.

Yes, it's a little weird to think that there are shortcuts to getting the grassy juicy NEIPAs I love so much. And that flour may add calories without adding taste, and the whole thing seems a little ... vain and cynical. If that's the real idea.

At the same time, look is such a minor part of my enjoyment of a beer. I'd like to try Tonsmeire's Hop Juice, for the taste. That's the ultimate judge, anyway.