Saturday, 17 September 2016

Nothing Fishy About Beer

Earlier last week, CAMRA held the official launch of its flagship publication; the 2017 Good Beer Guide. Most beer lovers and, indeed, many pub goers will be familiar with the GBG which is now in its 44th edition. The Guide lists 4,500 pubs which serve the best pints of “real ale” which can be found, up and down the country. It also gives details of every brewery in the country.

Like any self-respecting publisher, CAMRA wanted to give this latest edition the best launch possible, so it put out four different press releases, each highlighting a different aspect of the guide, in order to create the maximum amount of publicity. These releases were:

> Fishy business: Good Beer Guide reports moves to axe isinglass.
> CAMRA's Good Beer Guide warns global brewers threaten choice.
> New ‘safe drinking’ limits are rocky road to prohibition.
> Good Beer Guide celebrates London as Beer Boom City.

Two of these releases were slightly controversial, and whilst such topics might be considered good publicity, unfortunately for the campaign, the press picked up on the first one and ran with it. They ran with it so much, that the use of isinglass finings as a means of clarifying beer, ended up overshadowing the Good Beer Guide itself, and its celebration of all that is best within British pubs and British brewing. 

The press, being the press, also got much of the story wrong; no surprises there, so it’s worth taking a much more detailed look at a practice which has gone on largely unnoticed, and without controversy for a couple of hundred years, and probably much longer. 

When beer is ready to be racked into casks, it typically contains around one million yeast cells per millilitre. This amount of yeast creates an undesirable haze in the beer, so it has to be separated out. If the beer is to be sent out as “brewery conditioned”, where the secondary fermentation takes place in the brewery, in conditioning tanks, there are several means to remove the yeast, prior to packaging. The most common are centrifuging and filtration; both of which result in a nice clear glass of beer.

For cask conditioned beer (“real ale”) though, it is necessary for the yeast to remain in the cask in order to allow a secondary fermentation in the beer. If the cask is left long enough, the yeast will eventually settle naturally, leaving the beer bright and clear, but as most pubs cannot afford this luxury this is where the use of isinglass finings comes into its own.

Isinglass finings - ready for use
To achieve adequate cask conditioning, but also allow the landlord to serve a clear pint, brewers add a processing aid known as finings to the cask; the most common of which is isinglass finings. Isinglass is a type of collagen which is derived primarily from fish swim bladders. At one time these swim bladders were obtained from fish such as sturgeon, but these days the most common sources are catfish, drumfish and threadfins caught in tropical and subtropical waters.

To prepare isinglass as a fining agent, the swim bladders are removed from the fish and dried naturally. If dried too quickly much of the clarification potential can be lost, so this is by nature a slow process. Once dried the bladders are cleaned, sterilised and ‘cut’ in acid. The cutting process results in an emulsion-like white liquid known as isinglass, which is then ready to add to beer.

The means by which clarification of the beer takes place is that the isinglass passes through it rather like a fishing net. The yeast cells become enmeshed in the net by means of an electro-static interaction between the positively charged sites on the collagen molecule and the negatively charged surface of the yeast cell. This creates a bond between yeast and isinglass. This newly created particle is quite large in size and so sediments out of the beer far quicker than the yeast would naturally. The pub landlord now has a nicely clarified cask of ale ready for serving.

As mentioned earlier, this practice has been carried out for many years, and some historians even credit the Romans for its discovery as a means of clarifying wine. Fast forward two thousand years to the 21st Century, and drinkers who are either vegetarian or vegan, are clamouring for the use of isinglass to be restricted, or indeed discontinued. A spokesman for the Vegetarian Society said, "The use of isinglass in drinks production is a major frustration for vegetarian beer lovers as there are very few obvious ways to identify whether or not it has been used." 

Dried swim bladders
This frustration comes about because isinglass is not classified as an ingredient and is therefore exempt from Food Labelling Regulations. Despite pressure for Isinglass to be included under the 2003 EC Labelling Directive, the brewing industry successfully argued that it was a processing aid, not an ingredient that would be consumed. Isinglass finings are a tried and tested method of clarifying beer, and with a long history of use with no recorded incidents of an allergic reaction, there was a good case for isinglass to be exempt from the directive.

Now CAMRA has entered the debate with a call in the 2017 Good Beer Guide for breweries to examine alternatives to isinglass, as a means of clarifying beer. The BBC ran with this story, but at least they were more accurate than some newspapers who falsely reported that CAMRA had called for an outright ban on isinglass. 

CAMRA hurriedly issued a denial, but the damage appears to have been done, with some breweries receiving calls from disgruntled consumers, asking them to discontinue using isinglass in their beers. The BBC contacted a couple of breweries who have done just that, and stopped the use of isinglass, but unfortunately this is where emotion and abject subjectivity starts taking over from reason and scientific fact, with people talking about dead fish and even “fish guts” in beer.

Use of the latter term would imply isinglass is produced from the fish’s digestive system, which of course it is not. The swim bladder, which allows the fish to control its depth without having to expend energy by swimming, is located in the upper portion of the fish, well away from the stomach and other digestive organs. 

It is therefore disingenuous, and also highly emotive to label isinglass as “fish guts”, but whilst I can perhaps understand vegetarians and vegans using such terms, brewers should know better. Of course companies, who don’t use isinglass, may view it as advantageous to describe fined beers in this way, and whilst I personally have no problem with un-fined beers, I think they are being more than a little dishonest with both themselves and the drinking public.

This does lead on to the equally controversial problems associated with hazy beers; un-fined or otherwise. Again, I am quite happy to drink a slightly hazy beer, but unfortunately a substantial number of drinkers are not. The misconception that hazy beer will give you a dose of the “trots” the following day still persists; in fact a friend of mine, who could best be described as “old school”, insists this myth is true and will return any beer with the slightest of haze, even if it tastes perfectly fine. He is not alone, and this false belief, which seems to have been kicking around since before I started drinking, over 40 years ago, persists and brewers who produce un-fined beer will to struggle to dispel it.

Some have taken to issuing notices, which appear at the point of sale (on the pump clip or bottle), advising drinkers that the beer is naturally hazy. These developments are to be applauded, as educating drinkers is the obvious way forward, but what of plant-based alternatives to isinglass, such as Irish Moss or synthetic materials like silica gels?

From what I have read, vegetable derived finings perform well initially, but having worked once are incapable of clearing the beer for a second or indeed third time. This is an important consideration, as a cask may be moved several times during its journey from brewery to pub cellar, and each time the carefully settled sediment is disturbed. This is where isinglass comes into its own, as it is capable of working several times over.

To sum up, isinglass is not derived form “fish guts”, and neither is it an ingredient in beer. It is best described as a “processing aid”, as once the finings have done their work, by attracting and combining with the yeast cells suspended in the beer, it forms a layer of sediment called “trub”,  which sits at the bottom of the cask. Finings are thus not present in the clear bright beer which ends up in the consumer’s glass, so let’s cut out the emotion and hysteria over this, and carry on enjoying good, honest, traditional British Cask Ale.


Curmudgeon said...

I know from long experience that even a "slightly hazy" beer is normally a sign of there being something wrong with it.

OK, if there's a just a slight cast, I'll probably drink it and then move on somewhere else, but anything more than that, and back it goes.

And the best way to encourage people to switch to lager or mass-market keg is to start spreading the view that haze is acceptable in real ales.

Anonymous said...

To me it depends on what sort of beer it is Mudgie. Yes, if it's TT Landlord or something of that ilk (solid & traditional) then it should be exceptionally bright. If it's something a bit more progressive and specifically unfined and unfiltered then it's not only OK but desirable.

I would cite the case of North Ridings' exceptional award winning Peasholm Pale which is even tastier in it's unfined & unfiltered version and is more than hazy in appearance.

I suppose it depends on your overall outlook - there are still people I know who still refuse to use any form of digital communication, and are proud of it. Some would say, 'wake up and smell the coffee.' I would say, 'different isn't wrong.'

StringersBeer said...

The Vegetarian Society have got things completely arse-upwards when they say "very few obvious ways to identify whether or not it has been used". Brewers (and their chums in marketing) will be perfectly happy to tell the world when the beer's suitable for veggies - we'll generally put it on the label and our websites and go on about it on the social media - it's a selling point (and there's millions of veggies in the UK). Otherwise - it probably isn't.

What I suspect they actually want (the activists, at least) is to mobilise non-veggies "yuk response" to pressure the industry to reject animal derived products, because animals. I've got no problems with veggies making an ethical choice - I can't see why they want the cost of this choice to be borne by anyone else but themselves. That's not a moral position but rather one of entitlement.

Paul Bailey said...

Much of this discussion hinges around the question, “Is the beer supposed to be hazy?” If the answer is yes, the next question is, “Who determines the degree of haziness?”

By this I mean is the level of haze controlled before the beer leaves the brewery? Here, I’m thinking about beers like Zwickelbier/Naturtrüb/Kellerbier in Germany and Nefiltrovaný in the Czech Republic, where the amount of suspended yeast present is carefully controlled, prior to despatch. Or is the level of haze controlled by how the beer is looked after in the pub cellar?

With the latter, I’m referring specifically to un-fined cask-conditioned ales; beers which would eventually drop bright, or reasonably bright, if left for long enough, but which in practice are quite likely to be racked for a minimal amount of time, and end up looking like pea soup. The hapless drinker, returning such a glass, is on a hiding to nothing here, as the landlord would quite rightly turn round and say, “It’s meant to be cloudy; the brewery says so!”

This is the danger with un-fined cask beer, because who determines exactly how hazy the beer is supposed to be? I wrote about this problem back in January 2014.

StringersBeer, you are right to question the Vegetarian Society’s motives on this issue, but until a suitable plant-based alternative which is every bit as effective as isinglass, is developed, they will have to accept the status quo. Either that, or only endorse un-fined or filtered beers.

In my experience many “veggies” turn a blind eye when it comes to drinking beer which has been fined with isinglass. The fact that it’s a processing aid, and that little, if any, ends up in the drinker’s glass, should leave them with a clear conscience over this issue.

RedNev said...

With one or two possible exceptions. e.g. wheat beer, I don't really accept that any real ale is 'supposed' to be hazy. I was once told that an unclear beer that I was very familiar with was supposed to be like that; it wasn't, of course. As I asserted in my own blog post on the topic, attempting to get drinkers to accept hazy beer allows less scrupulous pubs to claim that beer served prematurely, not looked after properly, or even past its best, is meant to look cloudy.

Curmudgeon said...

And, as Tandleman has often pointed out, if a beer is "meant" to be a bit hazy, how can you tell if it's much cloudier than intended and, what is more, how can you convince the bar staff?

Paul Bailey said...

The fact that it’s almost impossible to determine what is the “correct” degree of haziness, or to answer the question, “When does hazy become cloudy”, makes this whole issue so open to interpretation, as to be unworkable.

Whilst I appreciate some of the sentiments behind the desire to go for a more “natural” product, free from animal derivatives (I am not a vegetarian, by the way), it takes us into uncharted waters, and turns decades of cellar practice on its head.

As other commentators, as well as me, have pointed out, un-fined beer gives carte-blanche to any lazy or unscrupulous publican, to serve up a glass of milky-looking, yeast-laden liquid. The unsuspecting drinker will have little or no luck in trying to return it, because “It’s supposed to be hazy; the brewery say so!”

Another example of the Law of Unintended Consequences, arising out of a genuine desire to be more encompassing, and more inclusive.

Anonymous said...

Drink with your tastebuds not your eyes. Point in case American beer's on cask at the GBBF this year. All bright and clear, all I tried were flat, tired, and out of condition and lacking body.