Isinglass sounds like some Lord of the Rings character. Maybe it’s not as interesting as a Middle-Earth wizard or Sindarin elf, but isinglass has its own magic. It’s a collagen used for making jellies, glue and clarifying and fining beer and wine. What is isinglass exactly? Well, still something witches might actually use — dried swim bladders of fish (usually sturgeon). Weird, right? It’s also maybe a little unacceptably gross for some folks (say, vegetarians).
Unfortunately, isinglass is a cheaper way to control flocculation — the process where a substance is mixed into the beer to make it less hazy. According to the experts:
The finings flocculate the live yeast in the beer into a jelly-like mass, which settles to the bottom of the cask. Left undisturbed, beer will clear naturally; the use of isinglass finings accelerates the process.
As an example, for years these magical fish bladders were used in the production process for Guinness, but because of a consumer push, last year the Irish nameplate announced that it was working hard to avoid using key animal byproducts like isinglass. It should be noted that beer doesn’t need to be clear — it can be hazy — but we all get that most customers have been conditioned to prefer clear beer. Secondly, there are alternative finings on the market that are vegan-friendly. A little more than a week ago, we were interviewing Rogue Ales and Spirits brewmaster John Maier, and we asked this craft pioneer his advice for up-and-coming brewers. He focused on beer selection, filtration and finings.
“Just make some well-made simple beers to start, you know, and just keep it as clean as you can,” Maier suggested. “Make a core group and just try to make them really well. What’s wrong with a standard pale ale? Make a core group that are really well done, and when some of those take hold, you can get more creative. I would also recommend to somebody to stay away from filtration.
“Maybe just do some fining. They have finings now that are vegetarian-friendly that you can use. Stay away from gelatin and animal products because you always get that question from vegetarians and vegans. Finings are a good way to go because some yeast just doesn’t settle out. Sometimes you can just let it settle, but only if you’ve got the tanks and the time, but I would stay away from filtration altogether if I was starting out.”
If you’re looking for a vegan-friendly product, check out BSG, which is a craft ingredients and equipment umbrella company from the malt masters at Rahr Corp. BSG offers a variety of brewing aids, including lots of isinglass-based products, but also clarification products aimed at vegan-friendly brewing and cask conditioned ales. BSG’s Biofine Clear line uses a purified colloidal solution of silicic acid (SiO2) in water that has been specifically formulated for the rapid sedimentation of yeast and other haze forming particles in beer. And, it is vegan-friendly.
There are definitely more options out there, and customers are demanding more (ahem) transparency with their ingredients. We noticed this article on the BBC the other day about the Campaign for Real Ale (an independent voluntary consumer organization headquartered in St Albans, England, which promotes real ale, real cider and traditional British pubs). CAMRA is calling on U.K. brewers to investigate alternatives to isinglass for their drinks. From the article:
Twisted Barrel Brewery made the decision not to use isinglass to clear its beers soon after setting up in 2014. Brewery owner Tim Bosworth, a long-term vegetarian who went vegan two years ago, said he was shocked when he first learned about the ingredient.
“It’s kind of disgusting to think about, even to people who eat meat, and it’s something that’s not talked about,” he said. “Nobody really wants to advertise that they filter their beer through dead fish.”
That’s probably a pretty accurate statement, Tim.