Billed as “Beers not Steers!,” join this “meetup” group for a vegetarian beer tasting at Manhattan’s Hop Devil Grill, this Saturday, April 28 at 3:30pm.
Never knew there were animals in your beer? A surprising number of beers do actually contain products derived from animals. The two most common are isinglass and honey.
Isinglass is made from the bladders of fish, especially Beluga sturgeon and cod, and is commonly used by brewers as a “fining” to clarify beer. Finings help flocculate yeast, which means they attach themselves to suspended yeast particles causing them to descend to the bottom of the vessel.
Isinglass is most often used in British cask-conditioned “Real Ales” – beers refermented in the cask (barrel) and thus served while still containing live or dormant yeast. In general, this is a very good thing. Brewer’s yeast is full of vitamin B, and Real Ale is served at cellar temperature without forced carbonation, allowing a beer’s full range of flavors and aromas to emerge.
These “live beers,” i.e. unfiltered and unpasteurized, are also the norm in the American craft beer scene. But in general brewers and drinkers alike prefer beers to be “clear,” so brewers use finings to settle the yeast to the bottom, forming that thin off-white layer of yeast sediment sometimes found at the bottom of “bottle-conditioned” beers (live beers refermented in the bottle). It just happens to be that fish bladders pull this task off rather well.
Irish moss, a.k.a. carrageen, is the main alternative to isinglass. A species of red algae, Irish moss grows on rocks along European and North American Atlantic coasts. It works basically like isinglass but its a plant rather than an animal. Some brewers use isinglass and some use Irish moss are both are also sometimes used for fining wine. But many brewers use no finings at all – in fact most American craft brewers don’t bother with it. Unfortunately, few brewers label their beers indicating whether they’ve used isinglass or not, so the only sure way for vegetarians to find out is to ask the brewery.
Honey is another fairly common addition in beer. Most beers with honey indicate it in the name, but it is not required, so again vegetarians concerned about this product need to ask the brewery to be sure.
In the U.K. more beers are being labeled vegetarian but in the U.S. it is quite difficult to determine, which is frustrating because the vast majority of American beers are in fact vegetarian but they don’t bother saying so.