All beer was not created vegetarian

Posted: August 09, 2012

You wouldn't think it would be all that hard to be a vegetarian beer drinker.

I mean, I've had about a zillion different beers over the years, and I usually examine my glass pretty closely before taking a mouthful.

Not once have I noticed a pork chop in there.

Beer is made with water, malt, hops and yeast.

And yet, here I am at Old City's Khyber Pass Pub with my colleague Vance Legume, and he's holding things up wondering if the bartender's about to pour him a beer made with, I dunno, minced kitten parts.

Did I just call him Legume? I'm sorry, Vance Lehmkuhl, the Veganista behind the People Paper's "V For Veg" column. He tells me he's concerned that the tap list includes beer brewed with Isinglass.

Oh, boy, here we go …

Isinglass is the touchstone for much fretting in the vegan world. I know this because I get occasional letters from readers worried they're drinking beer made with fish guts.

That's right, Isinglass is made from the bladders of sturgeon, and it's frequently used as a fining, or clarification, agent. Added after fermentation, it helps yeast settle to the bottom of the tank into a bed of sediment.

Since there are several alternative ingredients that can do the same trick, not all brewers use Isinglass. But here's the thing: No beer actually contains Isinglass. The whole point of the ingredient is that it's left behind in the bottom of the barrel with the rest of the dregs, never to be consumed.

So, Vance, even if your beer was made with Isinglass, you should still be able to look yourself in the mirror the next day because, bless poor Bambi, you didn't actually eat an animal.

Vegans say that doesn't matter; a sentient being was sacrificed.

Indeed, they're so concerned about this, there's an entire website — — that tracks the veganality of thousands of beers and wines. Beers that are not "vegan friendly" are marked in red.

Can't find your favorite brand? The website suggests contacting the brewery and forcing it to come clean: Are you or are you not a fish-killer?

I'm not about to get into an argument with Vance, because I think he has a lot of good points about going meatless (even if I think vegan chicken wings are an abomination).

Instead, I say if you're worried about Isinglass, you're not going far enough. Look hard, Vance, and you'll find plenty of animal products in your beer. For example:

Milk stout: It doesn't contain any actual milk, a vegan no-no because it's the product of an animal. But it is made with lactose, or milk sugar, which comes from cows.

Berliner weisse: It gets its tart flavor from l actobacillus, a strain of bacteria that's grown on a dairy culture.

Braggot and grand cru: They get their sweetness from honey, which vegans don't eat because honeybees are squished during its harvesting.

Oyster stout: This is a dicey one because many brands don't really contain oysters; they're simply stouts that taste good with shellfish. But even when it's made with oysters, as with Yards Love Stout, so what? Oysters have no brain or central nervous system, so they're not sentient beings.

But don't stop there, Vance. There are still plenty more dead critters hiding in your beer.

If your favorite wasn't clarified with Isinglass, maybe the brewery used gelatin instead. Oops, gelatin is made from the connective tissue in horse bones.

Is your beer crystal clear? Chances are it passed through a filter that contained charcoal, which is often made from animal bones.

Are you into cheap beer? It might've been made with white sugar, which was refined with charcoal.

Like the look of the soft collar of foam on your pint? Brewers often control the bubbles with a "heading" agent called pepsin, an enzyme that comes from pigs.

The list goes on. My copy of the Adjunct Reference Manual — the federally approved directory of beer ingredients — includes the likes of nisin (dairy), stearic acid and glycerin (animal fat), carmine (bugs) and cochineal extract (more bugs).

By the way, those latter two ingredients are used for coloring, and sometimes they're in the inks on, uh-oh, printed beer labels. Speaking of which, is that label adhered to the bottle with animal-free glue?

I could go on (Was the brewer wearing leather boots?), but I'm worried that Vance will never drink another beer.

I might be a meat-eater, but that doesn't make me a buzz-kill.

"Joe Sixpack" is by Don Russell, director of Philly Beer Week. For more on the beer scene, sign up for his weekly email update at E-mail:

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