Food & Drink Muse

What's the Beef with Your Beer?

Annabel Mulliner explains how some alcohol may break your Veganuary challenge.

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Image Credit: Michal Jarmoluk

If you’ve taken on Veganuary this year, you may be finding it hard enough already having to read every little food label looking for insidious milk powder. But have you been keeping yourself in check when you hit up Courtyard on a Wednesday night? It may come as a surprise, but many of your favourite alcoholic beverages may not be vegan, or even vegetarian.

The problem with non-vegan alcohol is that legally, producers only need to declare allergens: they do not need to label their products as vegan or vegetarian. So, if there are any animal by-products in your beer, you’ll likely have to go out of your way to find out. There are a few common ingredients to watch out for, including gelatine and honey, but the main one you will encounter is isinglass, a gelatine product derived from fish bladders. Many beers and wines are non-vegan as they use this in their filtration process to clarify their bever-ages faster. Beers do clear themselves naturally if left for long enough as the particulates settle in the barrel, but brewers often use a variety of fining agents, like isinglass, to speed this along. Isinglass clumps the particulates together, so they form heavier pieces which sink faster.

Traditionally, isinglass was taken from sturgeon, but now many tropical fish varieties are used for the process. While isinglass used to be almost essential to beer manufacturing, its use has declined thanks to advances in centrifugation and filtration technologies. In this country, it’s still widely used in cask ales like the popular Wainwright’s and Greene King. But other pub classics like Carling and Strongbow are also made using the fishy substance. Even the trusty Echo Falls cannot be relied on here.

So, if you’re going vegan to defend the rights of animals, then you may want to reconsider your regular bar order. However, if you’re taking up this month's challenge to reap the potential health benefits of veganism, then perhaps you can pretend that you never read this article. Isinglass is easy to avoid if you stick to safe options (of which there are plenty). Isinglass is not used in any spirits, so your round of VKs and Jagerbombs are good to go. Barnivore offers an entire directory of vegan beverages, but you can also go straight to the producer’s website to get your answer. Thanks to the huge increase of interest in a plant-based diet, more companies are choosing to label their products as being vegan or adapting their recipes to omit isinglass. In 2018, Guinness got PETA’s seal of approval, by removing it from their brewing process.

A good rule of thumb for beer is to stick to German and Belgian brews. The brewing purity laws in both countries decree that beer can only contain water, hops, malted barley and wheat. However, UK craft beer companies are joining the growing trend of vegan beers, for example, Moor, Marble, and BrewDog have all adopted plant-based brewing techniques. Why not head to Brew York this month to sample an array of vegan-friendly beers? Their website has a directory that will tell you which of their dozens of beers are vegan.

Just remember that isinglass isn’t your only enemy; milk stouts are, of course, off-limits. Or if you’re out for a cheeky cocktail night, be wary of the classic Instagrammable foam top, as this often contains egg whites. Dusk, as well as offering 2 for 1 from Monday to Thursday, have a full list of allergens on their cocktail menu. Those of us joining Veganuary this year must remember that veganism is a lifestyle and not simply a diet. Whether it be through alcohol, shampoo or clothing, animal products pervade our everyday lives in ways we wouldn't expect. But with a growing number of options on every front, Veganuary needn’t feel restricting.

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