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November 2003
What’s in the Brew? An Introduction to Vegan Beer

By Catherine Clyne
 

You may not know it, but beer, that fermented and beloved beverage, has been enjoyed for thousands of years; it’s just a relatively new arrival in the West.
Some of the earliest known records of human writing describe the making and drinking of beer. Ancient Mesopotamian clay tablets depict the gathering of barley, its mashing and fermentation. Early pictograms show bread being baked, crumbled into water, then made into a beverage, which was recorded as making people feel “exhilarated, wonderful and blissful!”

Recent excavations near the ancient Egyptian pyramids at Giza reveal cities of artisans who lived with their families alongside where they worked, sculpting, building, painting, etc., to construct the gigantic monuments of the pharaohs. Archaeologists have uncovered dozens of bakeries and breweries. It seems the pyramids weren’t exactly built on blood, sweat and tears; it was something somewhat less dramatic: beer and bread.

As with coffee and the works of Aristotle, western Europeans were introduced to beer through the Crusades—by the very heathens they fought. Returning crusaders made pilgrimages to monasteries and brought samples of this elixir—and industrious monks caught on quickly. One of the earliest monasteries to brew beer was Abdij ter Duinen (Abbey of the Dunes) founded in Belgium in 1107, and breweries subsequently popped up all over Europe—testament to its new status as a staple of life. This monastic brewing tradition survives today in what are known as Trappist beers.

The Good and the Bad

For vegan beer drinkers, there’s good and bad news.

First the good. Generally, animal products are not used in making beer in the U.S., except for a few brewers who follow some traditional English or cask-treated recipes. German purity laws, based on the Bavarian Reinheitsgebot established in the 16th century, actually forbid the use of ingredients other than water, grain (barley or wheat), hops and yeast; so (assuming brewers abide by this), it’s a safe bet German beers are vegan. The same is true of Belgian beers. We asked Belgium’s most renowned beer yeast culture expert, Roger Mussche, about it and got this response:

My friends, this is a little joke for us. We are real brewers, not from the Anglo-Saxon world! It means that we never use any part of an animal in our beer like the Commonwealth people do... No foam-control agents, especially glyceryl monostearate (it’s much better to make French fries with it). So we are more than vegan! What a world...

Now the bad news. Many traditional British beers use isinglass for clarifying, which is usually decanted after the brewing process; they may also use gelatin or casein. Some also use animal products, such as glycerin, to control foam consistency.

Sadly, we can put the debate over Guinness to rest. Information obtained by Satya reveals that—it’s true—Guinness stouts are not vegetarian. They’re not “full of fish guts” as some rumors suggest, but they use isinglass for fining. The London Guinness Communications Centre responded to our query:

All Guinness brands are free from 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.


Happily, some of the greatest British beers are vegan, like those of the Samuel Smith brewery, which was founded in Yorkshire in 1758 and is still family-run—now in its fifth generation. Samuel Smith beers are widely recognized as some of the world’s finest, and are regularly awarded medals at beer competitions. They were first introduced to the U.S. in 1978 by Merchant du Vin, an importer of fine beers. Samuel Smith is probably most famous for its dark, silky Oatmeal Stout (which used to be prescribed to lactating mothers), a style of beer that had gone out of fashion in the early part of the 20th century and was reintroduced by Samuel Smith in the early 1980s. Samuel Smith also creates two organic beers—a lager and an ale. My personal favorite is the creamy Taddy Porter, named after the hearty train porters who regularly drank and served it.

A friend of mine had gone through life thinking beer was yellow watery stuff that kids drank just to get drunk, but on a whim, he tried Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout. He is now a certified brewmaster who makes some of the best home-brewed beer I’ve ever tasted—my current favorite is “Uncle Paul’s Martian Ale” (which is a deep red of course!).

Organic Beer—A Budding Industry
Last year, sales of organic wine and beer shot up a whopping 56 percent. Here’s a round-up of some of the tasty beers out there, all of which are vegan.

For those who appreciate organic beer, Wolaver’s Certified Organic Ales are probably the best known. Founded in California (newly re-located to Vermont) as a specifically organic microbrewery, Wolaver’s makes three flavorful ales: a Pale, an India Pale, and a Nut Brown. Brewmaster Steve Parkes recently revealed to Satya that Wolaver’s has perfected a vegan organic Oatmeal Stout that should be available in bottles and kegs by the end of November (watch out Samuel Smith!). Wolaver’s ales are sold in stores that sell organic products, including the Whole Foods chain, but they are increasingly found in mainstream supermarkets as well. If you’re lucky, you’ll find Wolaver’s on tap at a growing number of drinking establishments nationwide. (Note: the Wolaver’s cask-treated ales, which are not vegan, are only offered in a few specialty pubs that can accommodate them.)

Germany’s Pinkus Muller is probably the world’s first brewery to brew with only organically grown barley malt and whole hop blossoms. Still family-operated, the brewery creates classic German beers: a slightly bitter Pilsner, a golden Münster Alt or ale, and a traditional Bavarian Hefe-weizen or wheat beer.

Other American microbrewers are making organic brews or including organic ingredients in their beers. Northern California’s Butte Creek Brewery is supporting this budding industry with their Organic Ale and Porter. Delaware’s curiously named Dogfish Head Brewing Co. bottles a flavorful Chicory Stout that features organic coffee beans.

Going Local
It’s only after you first taste it that you’re hooked forever: fresh beer—it is simply the best. When I was young, my family visited Amsterdam every spring and on the agenda was always a visit to the Heineken brewery. We’d tour through the heady, yeasty smell of the brewery to the reward: orange soda and cookies for the kids, and all the fresh beer samples you could drink for the adults. My uncle, a devotee of the Anheuser-Busch collection, would let us kids have a taste, while exhorting his bliss. After that, Busch just wasn’t the same.

You’d be surprised how many independent breweries are around, the survivors of the microbrewery movement of the 90s. Here in New York, there’s the ever-growing Brooklyn Brewery [see interview with Stephen Hindy], with its Lager and Brown Ale widely available on tap; and its seasonal Black Chocolate Stout in six-packs at my corner deli. The Heartland Brewing Co. (35 Union Square W.; 212-645-3400), which has brought a taste for fresh beer back to NYC, serves classics like Red Rooster Ale and Harvest Wheat in its four brewpubs. Heartland is also known for its seasonal beers, like the spicy Smiling Pumpkin Ale, which, when combined with their hearty Farmer Jon’s Oatmeal Stout, creates a tasty “Stumpkin.” Who would have thought? Heartland beers are all brewed in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, under the watchful eye of head brewer Kelly Taylor.

A new discovery is Long Island’s Blue Point Brewing Co. of Patchogue, an independent “neighborhood” microbrewery, as they put it. Visitors are encouraged to tour the brewery and taste the beers. They promote recycling by offering half-gallon “growlers,” glass jugs that can be washed and refilled at a discount. “Fresh beer is best” is their slogan and they’re not kidding—their growlers have expiration dates on them! Blue Point beers have a shelf life of roughly eight weeks and are found across Long Island and distributed to local 7-11 stores. Predictably, the Oatmeal Stout—rich, dark and chocolatey—is a personal favorite, and we’ve picked up a few “growlers” of it at our local beer store. Sources say they are developing an organic beer that will hopefully be available early next year.

Resources

Don’t know much about beer? A good place to start is Merchant du Vin, www.merchantduvin.com, which has been importing handcrafted beers for over 20 years, like Samuel Smith and Pinkus Muller, as well as Ayinger, unique lambics by Lindemans, and Duinen’s Abbey ales and Orval Trappist ale.

Don’t know who your local beer-makers are? The Association of Brewers’ website, www.BeerTown.org, can help you find them. Type in the state and any other information you know for a list and contact information.

Want to make your own? Try DIY home-brewing: Seven Bridges Coop, the organic home-brewers coop, has everything you need. You can purchase ingredients and equipment online; find beer recipes; and take a “virtual” home brewing class (www.breworganic.com; 800-768-4409).

In Brooklyn, there’s something of a “library” of beers—Bierkraft, a store with hundreds of beers and a friendly, knowledgeable staff (191 5 Ave., Park Slope; 718-230-7600; www.bierkraft.com). They host free beer tastings—suitable for newcomers and connoisseurs alike—to introduce beers, with talks by beer-makers and staff members.

To find out what beers and wines are vegan, an updated edition of the extensive Animal Ingredients A-Z is forthcoming from AK Press (www.akpress.org) in February. —C.C.

 

Heartland Brewing Co.

While you might be familiar with the delicious brews served up by Heartland Brewery, a conversation with Brewmaster Kelly Taylor will shed some more light on what goes into the beer behind the scenes…

Heartland beers are brewed at Greenpoint Beerworks in Brooklyn, NY. While I knew that no animal products went into the beer, I was curious about where the ingredients were procured, and what happens to the waste once the process is complete. Greenpoint gets its grain from the Breeze Malting Company, a family-owned company in the Midwest that is a major grain supplier to breweries nationwide; and the hops come from the Pacific Northwest.

What happens to the spent ingredients from Greenpoint brewery? Mr. Taylor explained that the used malt and hops are picked up by local farmers for use as a feed supplement for animals, as well as for mulch in gardening and agriculture. I was also surprised to learn that used grain is good for landfills, because it is excellent at aerating the soil and promoting the biodegradation process. —B.G.


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