Saturday, May 13, 2017

Fish Free

If you're a vegan or a vegetarian, you don't eat meat, fish or poultry. That's pretty straight forward. But there are sub groups that take it in slightly different directions. Lacto-vegetarians consume dairy products, but not eggs. Ovo-vegetarians eat eggs, but not dairy products. Pescetarians avoid meat and poultry but do eat fish. All good, as long as you're not inviting them to a party. Fortunately, they're all good with fruits and nuts, grains and vegetables. But most importantly, booze is usually good to go.

Just want to cool off? A Mayflower IPA or a Boulevard Pale Ale will suit you just fine, and no puppies were harmed in the making. Likewise if you feel like a glass of Napa Valley Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc or one of Glen Carlou Syrah, you can do so knowing that the only cows in the process where watching the grapes grow. And even if you want to party hardy, you can do shots of Basil Hayden's Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey or Sauza Blue Tequila Silver 80 proof with the complete confidence that no chickens were sacrificed to get that nice burn in your throat.

However it's not all that way. According to the website Barnivore, while many alcoholic drinks are vegan friendly, it's hardly a clean sweep. Make a martini with Boissiere Extra Dry Vermouth and you're stepping over the line. In order to help clarify the product the grower uses a gelatin-based fining agent. Don't think of pouring a glass of Roscato Rosso Dolce red, which uses a component in its filtering that is derived from pork. And Almanac Cerise Sour Blond Beer says "Not sure how strict you are, but parts of our house wild yeast culture is propagated from a dairy medium." Darn, and the name sounded oh so natural.

But there is good news. If you fancied a glass of Guinness and wanted to stay on the straight and narrow, you were out of luck. That's because historically the Irish brew was filtered with isinglass. Despite it sounding like a Gaelic brewing vessel, isinglass is a substance obtained from the dried swim bladders of fish. It was not used for flavor or texture but for helping the yeast sediment settle faster, and tiny particles of fish remain in the final drink. It worked well, and like most products with long and proud histories, the brewer was loathe to tamper with a process that had stood the test of time. "Improvements" don't always turn out to be that: think New Coke. And reformulating to keep the same taste while reducing sugar or fat or other key ingredients is notoriously difficult. But this week, at least in Dublin, progress of a sort.

Diageo, the company which manufactures the stout, yesterday confirmed that all kegs of Guinness on the market are now vegan-friendly. Stephen Kilcullen, master brewer and head of quality for Guinness, said that they would have been vegan a decade ago, but the technology did not exist to filter out the yeast without isinglass. "Everything we tried lost that ruby red color you see in the bottom of the glass which shows it's clear. We wouldn't compromise on quality so we had to wait for the technology," he said. In essence, there's now an app for that.

But note that the press release talks about how all "kegs of Guinness" are now free and clear of animals. Nothing is said about bottles and cans. That's because, pardon the expression, the net hasn't been cast that wide. But that is the next great frontier. The hope is to expand the new process to the take-home market. But until then, the only way to knock back a frosty if you are against stepping on bugs is to do so at your local pub straight out of the tap.

To mark the occasion, the company stood Paul Vogel, a founder of the Vegan Society of Ireland, to his first pint in 17 years. Is it what he remembered? "It's nice. I remember what it tasted like because it's so distinctive. It's creamy but has that bite." Music to a brewmaster's ears. But will he have another? "Eh, it could be another 17 years before my next. I just prefer wine now, I don't really drink any beer." Sigh. Back to the fish bladders.


Marc Wollin of Bedford has never been a beer drinker. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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