‘Is beer vegetarian’ sounds like a dumb question. Surely beer is made from water, malt, barley, maybe hops and some flavors. What could not be vegetarian? There’s yeast, sure. But yeast is typically considered vegan. But no one really considers fish bladder. So what gives?
Vegetarians, beware: most breweries don’t reveal whether their beer is suitable for vegetarians. It’s not because this is obvious but rather because a lot of beers aren’t actually vegetarian. Many beer manufacturers incorporate finings into their brewing process to purify the beer when transferring it into a barrel. Sometimes, producers use plant-based products such as Irish moss to make finings. But other times, they use animal-based products like isinglass and gelatin.
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Beer and fish bladder
Beer dates back thousands of years and is one of the oldest alcoholic beverages in human history. But the beer we drink today is nothing like the beer that was around centuries ago. Modern beer is clearer, tastier, and more flavorful. To a person in the Antiquity or the Middle Ages, modern beer would be unrecognizable.
It’s not just about taste, a lot of producers also emphasize how beer looks like. To clear out the end product, brewers often use finings.
Beer finings are substances added during the brewing process. They make the beer clearer by precipitating suspended matter such as yeast and protein solids. This results in a more visually appealing beer. There are several types of finings:
- Animal-derived products: Examples include isinglass (made from fish swim bladders), gelatin, egg whites, and blood.
- Plant-derived products: Examples include Irish moss (a type of seaweed), pectine, and carrageenan.
- Mineral-derived products: The most common example includes bentonite, a type of clay.
- Synthetic products: These include substances such askieselsol (colloidal silica), copper sulfate, and activated carbon.
The problem, as you’ve guessed, is animal-derived products.
When beer isn’t vegetarian
Since the 19th century, brewers have used a substance called isinglass to make beers clearer and more appealing to consumers. Isinglass is a form of collagen obtained from the dried swim bladders of fish, especially sturgeons.
Isinglass is made from bladders of the fish. The word ‘isinglass’ stems from the bygone Dutch term ‘huizenblaas‘. ‘Huizen‘ signifies a type of sturgeon, while ‘blaas‘ means bladder. Historically, sturgeons were the primary source of isinglass, lending the name its origins. Today, the trend has pivoted towards more cost-effective cod, although certain traditional breweries still favor the sturgeon. Additionally, a handful of wineries employ isinglass in their production.
When introduced to beer, isinglass performs a captivating dance with the yeast and other suspended particles. It latches onto these particles through electrostatic interaction, forming larger clumps. It’s easy for brewers to remove these larger formations afterward. However, the involvement of isinglass, an animal-derived product, in the brewing process renders the beer non-vegetarian, despite the subsequent removal of the finings.
Fish bladder to clear out beer
Isinglass rose to popularity as transparent glasses and pints started becoming the dominant type of drinking vessel. People didn’t like seeing cloudy beer in their glass, so producers started to add finings — substances added near the completion of the brewing process, which improve clarity quickly.
In time, finings (and isinglass in particular) became more and more popular because they allowed for a quicker beer turnover, helping to clear it much faster than it naturally would. Humanity drinks a lot of beer and producers can sometimes have a hard time keeping up. Isinglass helps with that.
Cask ales (also called cask-conditioned beer), for instance, often use isinglass. These are unfiltered, unpasteurized brews that mature and are served straight from the cask, without any extra nitrogen or carbon dioxide pressure. However, these aren’t the only beers where isinglass is deployed. many breweries still use isinglass for non-cask beers. Especially in the UK, fish bladders are still popular.
Other animal products are also used as fining. Gelatin is one example, egg whites are another. lood is much rarer, but it is also used in beer sometimes. All in all, if the beer doesn’t have a ‘suitable for vegetarians’ label, you shouldn’t really assume it’s vegetarian.
Fish bladder in wine
If you thought ‘well, beer isn’t my jam, I’m more of a wine person’ — I’ve got some bad news for you.
Manufacturers actively utilize finings not only in beer but also in products like juices and wines for clarification purposes. Although less common, they sometimes incorporate isinglass into wine and juice production, thereby making these beverages not necessarily vegetarian-friendly.
Fining agents such as gelatin and albumin find occasional use in the wine-making process. Additionally, winemakers may employ casein, a milk protein, and chitosan, derived from crustacean shells. Regulations do not always compel producers to disclose this information. As a result, many producers simply don’t mention it.
For some vegetarians, this may be acceptable, for others, it’s not. In fact, many non-vegetarians may be put off by this as well, especially as trace amounts of these animal-derived finings can remain in the product.
Suitable for vegetarians
Thankfully, many producers are starting to take note of this and are switching towards different types of finings. While fish bladder finings are still widespread, they’re starting to drop in popularity somewhat.
Vegetarian finings such as bentonite, seaweed or Irish moss also exist on the market and producers are starting to adjust, especially when consumers demand it. But consumers should be aware of the issue in order to demand change.
So when you see a beer or a wine with a ‘Vegetarian’ or ‘Vegan’ tag, this basically means they don’t use isinglass or gelatin. After all, who wants to drink fish guts in beer?
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