March 13, 2013
Guinness sells about 10 million pints a day across 100 countries. On St. Patrick’s Day, that number hops to 13 million. When Arthur Guinness set up shop in Dublin back in 1759, he never would’ve guessed that his stout would become the unofficial beer of the Irish and the go-to beverage to shout to the bartender come March 17 (besides Jameson). Even Obama honored his Irish lineage with a highly-publicized Guinness at a pub in Ireland last year. But the classic brew isn’t for everyone. For the hardline vegetarians and vegans out celebrating this St. Paddy’s Day: there could be traces of fish bladder in your Guinness.
Isinglass, a gelatine-like substance made from the air-bladders or sounds of fish like the sturgeon is added to cask beers like Guinness to help any remaining yeast and solid particles settle out of the final product. As the finings pass through the beer, they attract themselves to particles in the fermented beer that create an unwanted “haziness” in the final product and form into a jelly-like mass that settles to the bottom of the cask. While beer left untouched will clear on its own, isinglass speeds up the process and doesn’t affect the final flavor of the beer once removed.
The word isinglass most likely comes from the corruption of the Dutch word huisenblas which translates directly to “sturgeon’s bladder,” but its history goes back a little further. Its archaic, Latin root, ichthyocolla, comes from the Greek words ikhthus (fish) and kolla (glue)—defining the mucous-like substance as “fish glue.”
According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica Volume IX, originally published in Edinburgh in 1797, the method of using isinglass as a clarification agent was long a secret in the hands of the Russians who were known for their exceptionally strong isinglass-made glue. The entry, which draws heavily from Humphrey Jackson’s 63rd volume of the Philosophical Transactions, cites the principal research of Pomet on the process of making isinglass:
“As to the manner of making the isinglass, the sinewy parts of the fish are boiled in water till all of them be dissolved that will disolve; then the gluey liqur is strained and set to cool. Being cold, the fat is carefully taken off, and the liquor itself boiled to a just consistency, then cut to pieces and made into a twist, bent in form of a crescent, as commonly fold: then hung upon a firing and carefully dried.”
Pomet’s experiments with the sounds of fish and its chemical properties lead him to discover the fish membrane’s ability to clarify beer. Adding an ounce and a half of “good isinglass” to a gallon of stale beer to steep for a few days, he found that the bad beer “was converted into good fining, of a remarkably thick consistence.” When he tried this with the same quantity of glue, the experiment yielded only “mucilaginous liquor, resembling diluted gum water which instead of clarifying beer, increased both its tenacity and turbidness.”
Combining the insinglass with malt liquor, he found that a “vast number of curdly masses became presently formed”, became attracted to the “feculencies of beer,” and, with the “well known laws of gravitation,” the unwanted particles combined with the isinglass and fell to the bottom of the barrel.
The process is simple: Remove the membranous parts of fresh-caught fish, scrape off the mucosity with a knife, roll, twist and dry in open air. The thicker the sounds are, the better the isinglass. The air-bladders of fresh water fish are preferred because they are more flexible and delicate. Swim bladders from sturgeon—especially that from the Beluga sturgeon which yielded the greatest quantity of sounds—were used to make isinglass until the 1795 invention of a cheap cod substitute by William Murdoch. Summer is the best time to collect, as frost interferes with the fish’s gelatinous principles. After the drying process, “good” isinglass, once held up to a light, exhibits prismatic colors.
Guinness first used isinglass in its Dublin brewery in the mid to late 19th century. A young fermentation scholar by the name of Forbes Watson, the son of an Edinburgh solicitor, was a pioneer in the experimentation and examination of the mineral constituents of Guinness beer. Within six weeks of being hired at the brewery, Watson discovered a way to recover beer at the bottom of the vat saving Guinness 6,000 pounds a year. Very early in his career, he toyed with pasteurization and introduced new methods of breaking down isinglass finings that would increase the lifetime of the stout. In 1909, Watson was killed in an accident with a machine he had helped create at age 37. After he died, little scientific ground was broken for the company until the 1930s.
With the presence of modern gelatin, isinglass is rarely used today with the exception of British “real ale” cask beers. Generally, British beers still use isinglass, gelatin, glycerin or casein. According to a recent statement made by Guinness:
“All Guinness brands are free from animal matter and from contact with animal matter. However, isinglass, which is a by-product of the fishing industry, is used as a fining agent for settling out suspended matter in the vat. The isinglass is retained in the floor of the vat but it is possible that minute quantities might be carried over into the beer.”
For many strict vegetarians and vegans even “minute quantities” of an animal product is enough to abstain from eating a particular food. Much like the honey debate (Does it hurt the bee? Or does it not count as an animal product? What about silkworms and cochineal bugs?) flexitarians and militant vegans may disagree on how to classify the potential traces of isinglass in beer.
For those who are on the anti-isinglass side of the spectrum, carrageenan, a type of red algae, also called Irish Moss, (an appropriate title for St. Paddy’s Day) also works as a fining agent in beer, but doesn’t yield the same results as isinglass. The k-carrageenan interacts with the proteins that create cloudy beer and form the molecular equivalent of marbles in syrup at the bottom of the batch. Vegan brands like Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon use carrageenan while others like Odell Brewing Co. use centrifugation for clarification.
Strict vegetarians and vegans often choose German or Belgium brews which abide by “purity laws” (first enacted in 1516) which require that breweries use only ingredients of water, grain (barley or wheat), hops and yeast. The ruling was officially lifted in 1987 by the European Court, but the tradition of the law remains.
So, before you step out on the town in your green get-up and order an Irish stout this St. Patrick’s Day, remember: Pescetarians, rejoice—Guinness is still “good for you“. Vegans, stick to whiskey.
December 13, 2010
For the next round of Inviting Writing, and to celebrate the impending new year, we’re seeking your stories about “first taste” experiences.
To be considered for publication, please e-mail your submissions to FoodandThink@gmail.com by this Friday (Dec. 17) morning. We’ll read through all of them and pick our favorites to edit and publish on subsequent Mondays through mid-January. Just a reminder, we’re looking for true, original personal narratives of roughly 500 to 1,000 words. The rest of the details are up to you!
I’ll start with an example…
My Goodness, My Guinness
By Amanda Bensen
Ever heard the term “goody two-shoes?” That was me in high school, and that was still me at 19, as I entered my junior year of college. Up until then, I had never had an alcoholic drink. After all, I wasn’t 21—and underage drinking was not only illegal, but at my college it was an offense that could get you expelled (along with having opposite-sex visitors in your room overnight, or with the door closed).
But my junior year was different. I was studying abroad in England, where the drinking age was only 18, which meant that the mysterious world of alcohol was suddenly wide open to me. I was eager to experience British culture, and I quickly discerned that drinking was a necessary part of this—even the church I visited held its “young adults’ Bible study” at a pub.
When Ryan, another American student in my program, heard that I’d never had a drink, he was both incredulous and adamant that we remedy this strange condition immediately. He dragged me into a pub on the outskirts of Oxford. It was early on a weekday evening, and the place was quiet. We sat at the bar, where a handful of middle-aged men were silently watching television and nursing pints of beer.
“She’ll have a Guinness, and so will I,” Ryan announced loudly, as if this were something extraordinary. The bartender smirked as he handed us our drinks. I was about to take a sip when Ryan stopped me.
“Wait,” he said, lowering his voice. “Just so you know, this is a real local pub, not a tourist trap. They know how to drink. That means you have to take at least an inch or two out of the glass in your first swig, or they’ll probably laugh you right out of here.”
I was alarmed. That wouldn’t be a good way to experience the local culture. So, I took a big gulp, choking slightly and getting foam on my nose in the process. It tasted bitter, but not bad…kind of like dark chocolate, or coffee. I liked it!
Trying to ignore the fact that the other customers were now watching us more than the television, we hunched over our pints and tried not to talk. I looked at the vintage beer ads displayed on the pub’s wall, with slogans like “Lovely day for a Guinness” and “My goodness, my Guinness!” and debated whether it would be nerdy or cool to mention that I was reading a biography of the British mystery author Dorothy Sayers, who wrote those slogans in the 1930s. I was hoping it would help prepare me for a tutorial on C.S. Lewis I’d be taking that fall, since Sayers was a friend of his. Probably nerdy, I decided.
By the time my pint was nearly drained, Ryan was already finishing his second. “What did you have for dinner?” he asked. I said I hadn’t had dinner yet.
He put on a look of mocking seriousness (although the mocking part went straight over my head at the time).
“What?!? No food in your stomach? That means you’re going to be sick in…” he looked at his watch. “Twenty minutes.”
I felt fine, but he sounded certain, so I was worried. We tossed a handful of pound coins down on the bar and hurried out to the street in search of a quick bite. With only five minutes left in our ridiculous countdown, we found a food truck. I ordered a tray of fries and a greasy veggie burger, and downed them quickly, as if they were medicine. I don’t know how Ryan managed to keep such a straight face through it all.
By the end of that year, I was the one dragging visiting friends to the local pubs, although I never got into heavy drinking. After buying me eight shots in a row one night without seeing any effect, Ryan declared me the best drinking buddy he’d ever seen: “Such a tolerance! Never seen anything like it in a girl!”
What he didn’t realize is that I was the one doing the leg-pulling this time — it was a dark pub, there was nothing behind my chair but a dead-end stairwell, and I’d been tossing the shots over my shoulder the whole time.
I’ve long since lost touch with Ryan, but I still love Guinness.
March 17, 2009
Happy St. Patrick’s Day, the one day of the year when eating your greens can mean cupcakes, beer, even bacon.
It’s oddly appropriate that we celebrate our country’s Irish heritage by binging on fatty food and drink; after all, Ireland is the home of the fry-up, a typical breakfast consisting of fried eggs, bacon (rashers), sausages and black pudding (made from pig’s blood), with a few other fried things thrown in for good measure. Not surprisingly, Ireland’s also near the top of the list of countries with the highest heart disease death rates.
But there is some good health-related news on the Irish front: You know those charming old Guinness beer ads that proclaim it to be good for you? Turns out, they might be right—though not for the reasons originally thought.
Back in the 1920s, when the “Guinness is Good for You” slogan was introduced, the claim was based on market research that found that people felt good after they drank a pint of the dark and foamy stout. Um, duh.
This flimsy claim was eventually bolstered by the fact that Guinness contains iron. Pregnant women were even advised to have an occasional pint. Of course, it would take something like a dozen pints a day for a woman to get her recommended daily allowance of iron, in which case the alcohol and calories would cause more harm than good.
But another health benefit was discovered in 2003: stout beer like Guinness (as opposed to lager and other light beer) is high in the antioxidant compounds called flavonoids—similar to those found in red wine, tea and chocolate—that can reduce the risk of heart attack from blood clotting. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin carried out laboratory tests on dogs (Irish setters, I wonder?) with clogged arteries, comparing the effects of Guinness and Heineken. Only those dogs fed Guinness had reduced clotting.
In the interest of having a heart-healthy St. Pat’s Day, I decided to double my antioxidant dose by baking a Chocolate Guinness Cake. A little tip from this novice baker: measure the amount of Guinness carefully. I lost track of how much I put in, and ended up with a cake batter volcano in my oven. Luckily, I was able to scoop out about a 1/3 of the batter and bake the remainder. I doubt it came out the way it was supposed to, but it was still pretty delicious—moist and flavorful.
And one last interesting fact I learned about Guinness—it isn’t vegan; it (and some other beers) contains isinglass, a fish product used in the clarifying process to get rid of excess yeast. Be sure to share that little nugget of wisdom at the pub tonight.
Now, get out there and celebrate.
December 30, 2008
I’ll say it. The best beers in the world today are being made in the U.S. Let foreigners joke about our watery “macrobrews,” but meanwhile our craft-brewing tradition has gathered steam the way all endeavors do in our young country: with enthusiasm, ingenuity, and heaps of technology. Give us a thumbnail sketch and a couple of engineering degrees and we can found a tradition in anything you want.
And it pays to try them all. Beer is inherently unstable (unlike wine, its flavors start to get musky after a few months in the bottle), so there’s no real reason to hold a blind allegiance to the beers you’re comfortable with—they have likely only been getting worse on their long journey from the brewery. Why not try a beer from just down the block? With some 1,500 smaller names scattered around the country, finding great new beers is just one more benefit of traveling.
So here’s my personal month-by-month review of the top 12 beers of 2008. That’s 12 down, 1,488 breweries left to try. At this rate, my beer-tasting career should last me until the year 2132. It’s shaping up to be a tasty century.
January: I emerged into 2008 on the South Island of New Zealand, fresh from a nearly beer-free month in Antarctica. I wound up in Riverton, along a lonely stretch of coast beaten by the mighty Southern Ocean. The only open restaurant turned out to be closed when I walked in, but they invited me for “staffies” anyway, serving up three foamy, deep-yellow Speight’s Gold Medal Ales in succession and refusing payment. It was the perfect accompaniment to stories of gales, fish tales, and what climate change is doing to the local paua (abalone) crop.
February was deadline month, and my deadline beer is the Lost Coast Brewery’s Indica Pale Ale, brewed deep in Northern California’s “Humboldt Nation” (a county infamous for a certain controversial medicinal herb). The beer’s name is a rather adolescent pun, but as an India pale ale it’s straightforward and serious. Bitter hops explode from it, perfuming your mouth and nose in little aromatic puffs.
March is the month for Lost Coast’s Eight-Ball Stout, a beer so good I started calling my surfboard after it. Springtime in northern California sees the year’s coldest water temps. As you emerge from 50-degree water, wetsuit dripping, clambering over mussel-pocked rocks and holding a slender fiberglass plank in one raw pink hand, it helps to have something to look forward to. If it’s a thick, toasted, molassesy oatmeal stout dark enough to blot out the gorgeous California sunset, so much the better.
April saw visits to the Koreatown of San Jose, California, where I investigated the ultra-fresh Korean fried-chicken fad. You eat popcorn while the chef fries the drumsticks from scratch. When it arrives, the crispy skin is an airlock holding back scalding, partially vaporized chicken juice. The only solution is a giant bottle of OB Blue shared in small glasses with everyone at the table. Served extremely cold as damage control for the impatient eater, it’s exactly right.
In May I was involved in a neat project using technology to save whales from ship traffic off Boston (the Boston Globe described it here). Parts of Boston resemble a far-western county of Ireland, and one upshot is you can walk into any bar and get the world’s most famous stout, Guinness. Fizzed with nitrogen instead of carbon dioxide, the bubbles are tiny and soft, yielding a creamy taste rather than a carbonated sting. This beer is much milder (and lower in alcohol) than its reputation. Order it on a whim.
By June I was ensconced in an upstate New York lifestyle complete with a backyard vegetable garden and nonstop bicycling. During those sweltering months two brews from the Ithaca Brewery kept me alive: the fearsomely hopped Cascazilla Ale and its only slightly less wanton sibling, Flower Power India Pale Ale. Cold, fruity in the throat, and searingly carbonated.
A return to the West Coast over July 4th brought me back inside the blessed distribution halo of the Deschutes Brewery. If it’s hot, you drink Mirror Pond Pale Ale. If it’s cold and damp, Black Butte Porter. And if night is falling and your time out West is nearly over, you spend all your energy drinking Obsidian Stout. Many people fault this beer for being too complex for a stout. It’s smoky, peaty to the point of whiskeyness, with a sweetness that vanishes halfway through the sip. My longtime favorite beer, it’s like drinking mouthfuls of the winter solstice.
The highlight of August was a friend’s wedding, and with it the opportunity to drink from a keg of authentic, locally brewed root beer. If you haven’t done this recently, give it a try. Good root beer (non-alcoholic, of course) is sweet, rich, and caramel, with that woodsy taste of birch twigs and fragrant roots, reminding me of damp Appalachian hollows and fallen leaves.
In September my carefully planned birthday weekend on Martha’s Vineyard coincided with a drive-by drenching from Hurricane Kyle. Under the circumstances, huddling in the Offshore Ale Company in Oak Bluffs was a good way to spend the afternoon. I drank the Steeprock Stout and shelled peanuts as rain poured down in torrents through our car’s sunroof.
October. Foolish brewery names are a constant risk in an industry dominated by young guys who spend a lot of time drinking. But don’t write off Smuttynose Brewery just yet. (It’s actually the name of a quaint island off New Hampshire.) One way or another, their Robust Porter gets the name exactly right. Great beers should evoke tastes rather than ladle them onto your tongue, and that’s the way this beer treats its dark sugars and woody bitterness.
In November I discovered Butternuts brewery’s Moo Thunder canned stout. It’s a good, Guinness-like stout that gets extra points for delivery. Aluminum takes much less energy to recycle than glass, so putting beer back into cans, and keeping the flavor intact, strikes a blow for the environment. Pour it into a glass and feel virtuous while you watch the head develop.
I’m still auditioning brews for the role of “beer of December”, and I have high hopes of encountering some promising newcomer as I head out on a holiday-season road trip. Surely someone out there can offer a suggestion or two?