Thursday, 15 September 2016

Fined for hazy beer

I went into the Cock and Rabbit in Southport last weekend where there were two beers by Southport Craft Brewery; both pumpclips stated that the beer was meant to be hazy. They tasted fine, but that message got me wondering whether we place too much importance upon clarity in our beers. Even so, I hadn't thought to write about the subject until I came across this article posted today on the BBC website.

As is well-known among informed drinkers, beers are often cleared using isinglass derived from the swim bladder of fish, usually sturgeon, although not the Scottish variety. Cask ale cleared this way is not suitable for vegetarians, who can't easily work out what beers are suitable for them due to the exemption alcoholic drinks have from nutritional labelling rules.

According to the 2017 CAMRA Good Beer Guide, increasing numbers of brewers are looking at vegetarian-friendly alternatives to isinglass to clear their beers, such as products derived from seaweed, Irish moss (a small sea algae), or silica gel. The Centre for Bio-energy and Brewing Science at the University of Nottingham is investigating using the hop plant as a clearing agent. Guinness announced last year that it would be phasing out the use of isinglass, and quite a few smaller breweries already advertise their vegetarian status. It seems to me that a momentum is building up that will in time render the use of isinglass obsolete, and perhaps even unacceptable, but we're not there yet.

The question remains: should non-vegetarians be bothered about isinglass? I utterly loathe any form of fish or seafood and consequently notice fishy smells even when others can't, but despite that strong aversion, I cannot detect any such flavours in beers where isinglass is used. I've always assumed that it doesn't affect the taste of beer, but GBG editor Roger Protz quotes the opinion of Justin Hawke of Bristol's Moor Beer Brewery who doesn’t use finings at all because he thinks they remove some of the flavour from beer. As a former fairly large-scale home brewer who has made beer both with and without isinglass, I'm not convinced that's true. However, as there are now alternatives to isinglass, I think I'd prefer it if fish didn't have to be killed simply to help clear my pint.

Some people argue further: that we should abandon our expectation that beer should be clear, but I'm not convinced by that either. I'm prepared to accept that certain types of beer are likely to have a haze, but I don't agree that we should expect beer to have a haze as a matter of course. My own brewing experience was that beers will clear without finings, although they might take slightly longer.

Aesthetically, I like the appearance of a clear pint. I understand what some drinkers mean when they say they drink with their mouth, not their eyes, and while I'll go along with this to a point, it is not a general truth. If we don't like the look of what is put before us to eat or drink, we usually don't touch it, which is why presentation is so important in restaurants: a lot of people expect beer always to be clear, which is not unreasonable with most beers anyway, and if that's their preference, they won't find a 'cloudy' pint appealing.

My main concern about the hazy pint is that it can be used as an excuse for badly-kept beer, or beer that is being served too soon. A while ago, I was told that a beer I was familiar with was meant to be hazy when I knew very well that it wasn't. A drinker who is given a poor quality, hazy pint with the excuse that it's meant to be like that might well decide that real ale is not for them and switch to another drink, or perhaps take their custom elsewhere. We all know it happens.

If a beer is meant to be clear, I prefer it to be clear. I'll accept a haze as long as the flavour isn't impaired, especially if it's a style where lack of clarity is not seen as a fault. I am, however, concerned that haziness can be used as an excuse for serving beer prematurely, not looking after it properly, or even foisting beer that's past its best on customers. In such cases, drinking with your eyes is eminently sensible.


  1. I also picked up on this story from the BBC website. The whole “fish guts” thing is both inaccurate and unnecessarily alarmist and I will be posting on this issue later.

    Isinglass should be classed as a “processing aid”, rather than an ingredient, as once the finings have done their work, by attracting and combining with the yeast cells suspended in the beer, they are sitting at the bottom of the cask, along with the yeast. The technical term for this layer of sediment is “trub”, and unless the cellar man really didn’t know what he was doing, you wouldn’t be drinking it anyway.

  2. I agree, and the CAMRA press release makes a similar point to you in that it describes isinglass as a clearing agent rather than an ingredient.

  3. Yes, if the finings have done their job properly, they will sit at the bottom of the cask and you won't be ingesting them.

    I don't know whether the fish are caught specifically for isinglass, or whether it is a by-product of fish caught for food. If the latter, then isinglass is no more objectionable to vegetarians than leather.

    1. I've wondered that as well.

    2. Tyson amongst others has said that the fish are caught for food, so the swim bladders are just a by-product. In which case I can't really see any objection from a vegetarian point of view. It's a processing aid, not an ingredient.

  4. It seems to me that referring to an industrial processing agent via the origins of how the chemical is derived is meant to elicit a response of disgust in the mind of the consumer. CAMRA does this regularly, whenever it dismisses none cask beers as "chemical"

    Imagine if Burger King and McDonalds regularly argued there competitor’s burgers were somehow disgusting and people should not trust the origin of the meat. The effect would be to suppress the whole industry. They would damage themselves as much as their competitor. So they don’t do it. Like sausage makers, they tell you to trust their own product but do not elicit disgust at competitors.

    In fact the origin of the hamburger as the all American meal is related to a chain called White Castle that sponsored a university student to live off there hamburgers in the 20s and thus creating trust in a processed meat product. They created an industry by removing pre-existing mistrust and creating trust. The trust that the burger was as wholesome as steak.

    Therefore what is a campaign to save pubs, requiring people to use them and trust them, doing in creating mistrust and disgust at the products that are present in most pubs? Makes you want to sit on the couch with a nice Shiraz.

    1. I think you're right, CL, and I am irritated when certain real ale types refer to keg beers as "chemical fizz". What do they hope to achieve by insulting the preferred drink of people they presumably are hoping to convert to real ale? They are likely to have quite the opposite effect.


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