Using 'Finings' to make beer clear and reduce sediment

Friday, November 3, 2023

Clear beer is often the hallmark of quality and expertise in brewing. While the opaqueness of a brew does not necessarily denote a flaw in flavor, the visual appeal of a crystal-clear beer is a standard many homebrewers aspire to. Finings are substances added at various stages of the brewing process to aid in the clarification of beer by precipitating suspended solids that contribute to cloudiness.

The use of finings is not a modern invention; historical records show that even ancient brewers had their own methods of clarifying their concoctions. Today, a range of fining agents are available, each suited to different types of beer and personal brewing preferences.

Understanding Sediment and Cloudiness

Sediment in beer can originate from various sources, such as residual yeast, protein complexes, hop particles, and grain husks. The presence of these particulates not only impacts the beer's appearance but can also affect its taste, stability, and texture. Cloudiness, or haze, in beer can be attributed to the colloidal suspensions of these particulates. While some beer styles, like certain ales and wheat beers, are traditionally served with a natural haze, most beer styles are expected to be clear. Factors such as the beer's pH, the brewing process, and the ingredients used can influence the level of sediment and cloudiness in the final product.

use finnings to make clear sediment free beer

The Science of Clarification

The process of clarification is fundamentally a battle against haze-forming particles. These particles are primarily proteins and polyphenols, which are naturally present in beer. Finings work by adhering to these haze-causing particles and creating larger conglomerates that are more readily removed from suspension due to their increased weight.

The science behind this involves understanding colloidal chemistry. In the colloidal state, particles are small enough to remain dispersed throughout the liquid due to Brownian motion and their mutual repulsion, often due to similar electric charges. Finings typically carry an opposite charge to the particles in suspension. For example, many haze particles have a negative charge, and certain fining agents carry a positive charge, which allows them to bind together. Once bound, the particles form heavier entities that can settle to the bottom of the fermenter or be filtered out more easily.

This clarification process can be influenced by several factors, including the type of fining agent used, the temperature of the beer, and the time allowed for the finings to act. Some fining agents are more effective at colder temperatures, while others may require the beer to be at a higher temperature to work efficiently. The brewer must understand these variables to choose the most appropriate fining agent and use it correctly.

Types of Finings and Their Properties

The world of finings is diverse, with each type serving a specific purpose and suited for particular stages of the brewing process. Here’s a look at some popular fining agents used in home brewing:

Isinglass

Derived from the swim bladders of fish, isinglass is a form of collagen that’s effective in clearing yeast and other particulates. It carries a positive charge, which makes it suitable for attracting negatively charged particles. Isinglass is best used during the secondary fermentation stage and is known for its gentle fining action that preserves the beer’s head and flavor profile.

Gelatin

As a readily available and inexpensive fining, gelatin is a favored choice among homebrewers. It works similarly to isinglass but is obtained from animal collagen—typically bovine or porcine. Gelatin finings are added to the beer after fermentation, where they help to precipitate yeast and protein complexes. It's particularly effective when used in conjunction with cold crashing, which involves lowering the beer's temperature to enhance sedimentation.

Irish Moss and Whirlfloc Tablets

Irish moss, a type of red seaweed, and Whirlfloc tablets, which contain a refined form of Irish moss, are added to the wort during the last 15 minutes of the boil. They target the coagulation of proteins, which are then removed when the wort is cooled and settles. These are particularly useful for preventing chill haze, where proteins and polyphenols bond during cold storage, creating a haze in an otherwise clear beer.

Bentonite

Bentonite is a type of clay composed primarily of montmorillonite and carries a negative charge. It is useful for binding positively charged proteins and polyphenols. Bentonite is unique in that it can be used during the fermentation process; it’s added to the wort where it expands, increasing its surface area, and thus, its ability to clear haze-causing particles.

Polyclar

Polyclar is a plastic-based fining agent, which is often used in tandem with other finings. It is a synthetic polymer that is particularly effective at removing polyphenols, thereby reducing both chill haze and oxidative staling in beer. Polyclar is added towards the end of fermentation or during conditioning.

Silicon Dioxide

Silicon dioxide, or silica gel, is another fining agent that is adept at removing proteins. It’s often used in the commercial brewing process because it doesn't affect the foam stability or flavor of the beer. In homebrewing, silicon dioxide is less common but can be used in the filtration stage for those who filter their brews.

Each of these fining agents has its own set of instructions for use, and their effectiveness can vary depending on the specific characteristics of the beer being brewed. It is important for homebrewers to understand these nuances to select and apply the correct fining agent to achieve their desired clarity.


finnings for clear home brew beer

How Finings Work: The Science of Clarity

Finings improve the clarity of beer by interacting with suspended particles, causing them to coalesce and settle out of the solution. The science behind this involves charge interactions and the creation of larger particles that are more easily removed by sedimentation or filtration. Most suspended particles in beer, such as proteins and yeast, have a negative charge. Positively charged finings attract these particles, forming larger aggregates that descend to the bottom of the fermentation vessel.

Application and Timing: When to Use Finings

The timing of adding finings is crucial and varies depending on the type of fining agent being used. 

For instance, Irish Moss and Whirlfloc are added during the boil to prevent haze-forming proteins from remaining in the finished beer. Isinglass and gelatin are used post-fermentation because they work best in beer that has already undergone the majority of its yeast activity. 

Bentonite can be added during fermentation without risk, while Polyclar and silicon dioxide are typically introduced during the conditioning phase.

Best Practices for Using Finings

Using finings effectively requires attention to detail and best practices:

  • Dosage: Follow the manufacturer's recommendations for the amount of fining agent to add. Overuse can strip away desirable flavors, while underuse may result in incomplete clarification.

  • Hydration and Preparation: Some finings, like gelatin and bentonite, require hydration before use. Proper preparation ensures that the fining is evenly distributed throughout the beer.

  • Temperature: The temperature of the beer can impact the effectiveness of finings. For example, gelatin works best when the beer is cold.

  • Time: Allow sufficient time for the finings to work. Rushing the process can lead to inadequate clarification.

  • Allergies and Dietary Restrictions: Be aware of potential allergens, especially when using finings derived from animals, as these can affect the drinkability for some consumers.

Troubleshooting Common Issues with Finings

Sometimes, even with the best practices, finings may not produce the desired result. Understanding common issues can help troubleshoot when clarity is not achieved:

  • Incomplete Clarification: This may be due to insufficient fining agent, improper mixing, or not allowing enough time for the finings to act.

  • Flavor Changes: Some finings can affect the flavor profile of the beer. If the flavor seems off after fining, consider trying a different agent or adjusting the amount used.

  • Excessive Sediment: If there is too much sediment after using finings, it could be due to overuse of the agent or poor racking techniques.

Future of Finings: Innovations and Trends

The future of finings is leaning towards more natural and vegan-friendly options as consumer preferences evolve. New developments are focusing on creating fining agents that are effective yet have minimal impact on the environment and cater to a broader range of dietary requirements. Innovations in this space are likely to continue as the craft brewing industry grows and brewers seek to refine their processes and products.


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