Thursday, November 17, 2011

VeggieDag Thursday: Waiter, there's NO animal in my beer.

VeggieDag Thursday
VeggieDag is an occasional Thursday post on an animal-free diet and its issues.

A Washington, D.C. restaurant recently announced that they would present a "five course vegan dinner paired with five vegan craft beers." [emphasis mine] A dietary vegan consumes no animal flesh, or food derived from an animal. Is beer vegan?

Beer, at its essence, is brewed simply from four things: water, barley malt, hops, and yeast. Barley malt is a cereal grain that has been sprouted and dried. Water, well, it's a ubiquitous liquid. A hop is an herb. Yeast is a unicellular fungus. There's no animal in that recipe. Occasionally other things make their way into beer: cereal grains, such as rice, corn, wheat, sorghum, etc.: sugars; fruits; vegetables; spices. But, even so: there is no animal in beer. It is, indeed, vegan. The restaurant's promotion appears to have been redundant ballyhoo.

Local Beer 1: American Craft Beer Week

Or was it?

Animals can, at times, slither into a beer, but only during the processing of the beer. Fining agents are ingredients used to assist in the clarification of beer. Three common finings are gelatin, isinglass, and polyvinylpolypyrrolidone. The last, PVPP for short, is a nylon-type powdered plastic that bonds to haze-forming compounds. Not an animal!

Gelatin and isinglass are, however, animal derived: gelatin, usually from pigs' hooves, and isinglass, from the swim bladders of various fish, usually sturgeon. Both are positively charged, yeast is negatively charged. The collagen 'attracts' yeast which sticks to it. Then by the 'dust-bunny' principle (otherwise known as Stokes' Law), the clumps get larger and larger, and fall to the bottom of the vessel, pulling along haze-forming proteins for the rid, clarifying the beer. The beer is racked (transferred) from over the sediment, and then, often, filtered. Thus, finished beer contains NO ANIMAL product.

Furthermore, the use of gelatin is very rare these days, and isinglass, increasingly so. Most small breweries rely instead on gravity and filtration, or only the former, while larger breweries employ centrifuges.


There is one, major, exception. From Ian Ward, in The Oxford Companion to Beer:

With the advances in centrifugation and filtration technologies, the use of isinglass
[and gelatin] has declined and today it is largely confined to cask-conditioned ales, although some American craft brewers also use it to clarify beer without the use of filtration.

So there you have it. Beer is vegan. Except in unfiltered cask-conditioned real ale. Or, is it?

In August 2011, ten brewers from Washington, D.C, Maryland, and northern Virginia brought cask ales to the District Chophouse, in Washington, D.C. for Cask Night, a festivity that was part of DC Beer Week. That confluence gave me the opportunity to ask many brewers the same two questions. Are your beers vegan? Are your cask beers vegan?

The breweries present were:
  • Capital City Brewing Company, of Washington, D.C., and Arlington, Virginia.
  • District Chophouse, of Washington, D.C.
  • Du Claw Brewing, of Bel Air, Maryland, etc.
  • Franklin's Restaurant & Brewery, of Hyattsville, Maryland.
  • Gordon-Biersch Brewery & Restaurant, of Rockville, Maryland.
  • Heavy Seas Brewing, of Baltimore, Maryland.
  • Lost Rhino Brewing, of Ashburn, Virginia.
  • Mad Fox Brewing Company, of Falls Church, Virginia.
  • Oliver Ales, at the Pratt Street Alehouse, in Baltimore, Maryland.
  • Rock Bottom Brewery & Restaurant, in Bethesda, Maryland.
  • Sweetwater Tavern, of Centreville and Merifield, Virginia.
Brewers from all except one confirmed that they use NO isinglass (or gelatin, or any other animal-derived product) during the brewing and fermenting of their beer. And, all, except two, use NO isinglass (or any other animal-derived product) in their cask-conditioned beer.

The exceptions?

Mad Fox Brewing —a brewpub in Falls Church, Virginia— does fine its cask ales with isinglass. But, brewer Charlie Buettner told me, the brewery uses NO insinglass in its non-cask-conditioned beers.

Steve Jones —brewer for Oliver Ales at the Pratt Street Alehouse in Baltimore, Maryland— couldn't be present at the event, but a cask of his ridiculously delicious Strongman Pale Ale was. On a different occasion, he told me that he does, indeed, proudly, use isinglass in both the brewery and in his casks. Proudly, because Jones is a British ex-pat, and the use of isinglass has a long tradition in British brewing and cask ales.

Firkin 5/11: Strongman Pale Ale
In an ironic twist, Steve Jones is a vegetarian. Does he drink his cask ale, clarified with isinglass? "Of course," he replied. "We all draw our lines somewhere, but I don't draw that line to exclude cask ale."

So, drink assured, vegans! Beer is a vegan beverage ... most of the time. Do brewers proffer a sacrificial lamb before each brew to propitiate Nikasi and the other gods of beer? No!


  • The sample size of this survey is of course quite small. Unfortunately, neither the Brewers Association —a trade association for US-owned breweries of less than 2 million barrels annual production— nor any other entity keeps statistics on cask ale and such things.
  • Other animals have been used in beer.
    • "Cock ale, popular in 17th and 18th-century England, was an ale whose recipe consisted of normal ale brewed inside a container, to which was later added a bag stuffed with a parboiled, skinned and gutted cock." [rooster].
    • Oyster Stout can simply be a strong dark ale which a brewery will recommend to be drunk while eating raw oysters, or less frequently, be a stout actually brewed with the mollusk. These days, the former is no longer brewed (!), while the latter is occasionally seen.
  • VeggieDag is an occasional Thursday post on vegetarian issues. Why the name? Here.
  • Suggestions and submissions from chefs and homecooks welcomed! Here.

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