In fine form

How brightly thy beer doth shine


Have you ever wondered what makes your beer clear?

There are a few different elements of the beer-making process which determine whether beer will be clear and bright. ‘Flocculation’ is a term that you might have heard if you have ever taken a brewery tour. This describes the way that yeast forms flocs, or clumps, which settle out of finished beer. When yeast flocculates well, the resulting beer is clear, but when it fails to do so, there can be a haze. Yeast is not the only potential culprit of a haze in beer. Hazy beer is sometimes down to proteins (which come from the malt) and polyphenols (which may come from malt or hops). The use of finings can help with addressing protein and polyphenol haze, as well as addressing the haze caused by any yeast that is still in suspension.

Fining and clarifying agents work by encouraging the clumping together of particulates to form larger, heavier pieces, which will sink to the bottom of a vessel. Depending on the types of finings being used, they may be added during the wort boil, or after primary or secondary fermentation. The benefit of finings is an aesthetic one. With the global market dominated by pale beers, consumers today typically favour crystal clear beer. On the road to creating them, the secret ingredients needed to add clarity have shown up in some rather odd places. 

Something fishy

It might surprise you to know that fish had anything to do with making the beer in your glass, but if you have ever enjoyed a pint of cask ale, it is quite likely. The dried swim bladders of fish are used to make a product known as isinglass, a highly purified collagen protein which has classically been used in the production of cask ale. It carries an overall positive charge and reacts with negatively charged yeast cells and proteins. In addition, isinglass can remove foam-negative material such as lipids. It can also assist with foam formation and retention. 

You may, quite reasonably, be wondering how on earth anyone first came to realize that a material found in a fish bladder has these helpful qualities. It is probable that the effects of isinglass were first discovered when animal bladders were used to carry liquids, possibly as early as prehistoric times. According to historian Richard Unger in his book “Beer In The Middle Ages And The Renaissance”, isinglass from the dried swim bladders of sturgeon was used to clarify beer as early as the 16th century, when Dutch traders brought the goods from Russia. It replaced a similar substance which came from codfish. In modern British beer, isinglass might be made from a variety of different tropical fish.

Brent Jordan, general manager of AB Vickers, one of the oldest manufacturers of products for clarifying beer and wine, points out that while the basic ingredient hasn’t changed since ancient time, ethical sourcing and quality control are now a central part of the process.

“We no longer use Russian Sturgeon, ever, because it’s endangered,” he says. “All our fish products come from sustainable sources and, as is the case with Isinglass, are a vital source of income for many south-east Asian communities. It’s processed here in the UK, in a facility which meets the ISO 22000 food safety standards, so quality control is as good as you'll find in any other food production facility. Isinglass is also used in Asian cuisine, where it is a popular thickening agent, and sold as a natural dietary supplement, for its benefits to skin elasticity.”

Treasure along the coastline 

There are vegan rivals to isinglass, which could offer a replacement, such as Irish Moss - a type of dark red algae which contains carrageenan (a vegan and vegetarian alternative to gelatine). Carrageenan is used as a binding, thickening and emulsifying agent in other industries including food production. Irish Moss can be found growing on the surface of undersea rock formations along the Atlantic coasts. During the Irish potato famine in the 1800s, this moss was eaten by hungry and desperate locals. Fortunately for them, it was found to be a good source of protein and vitamins. 

In 1847, the Irish Moss industry was born in the USA, when an Irish immigrant named Daniel Ward identified the familiar algae along the coast of Scituate, in the state of Massachusetts. In 2010, the USA census showed that the town of Scituate had a higher proportion of people claiming Irish ancestry than any other town in the country, and as such it was nicknamed the “Irish Riviera.” The mossing business continued to provide jobs in the region until the 1960s. The hard-working team of ‘mossers’ dried their harvests on the beaches – a process that was known to take several days. As the turn of the century neared, moss could command higher prices than ever before, but mechanical dryers began to replace the manual labour.

Irish Moss might be dried to a tea-like substance or manufactured into tablets. A popular choice with both commercial and homebrewers, this is added towards the end of the wort boil. It is negatively charged and works by attracting positively charged proteins.

The move towards vegan-friendly beer finings 

The Manchester-based Marble Brewery was early to commit to using vegan finings; a move that led to the brewery being approved by the Vegetarian Society. In place of isinglass, Marble uses a combination of silica and Irish Moss. Head of Production Joseph tells me that he has noticed the attitudes of beer drinkers shifting in recent years. “There’s definitely more awareness about veganism in general. People are way more receptive.” The push towards vegan-friendly isinglass alternatives continues to gain momentum in the industry, including at the macro level. In the last few years, Guinness has worked to eliminate the use of isinglass in the production of their beer, by implementing a new filtration system. 

At Nottingham University, there is a research project in the works which could further enhance the vegan options available to brewers when it comes to selecting finings. Brewing scientists are working on developing a sustainable and vegan-friendly fining agent which is derived from hops. It has been shown to bind metal ions, which gives this product the potential to slow oxidative reactions and prolong beer shelf-life. The research, led by AB InBev Professor of Brewing Science David Cook, is still ongoing. The research team are working closely with their commercial partner Barth Innovations, part of the Barth Haas group, a major supplier of hops and processed hop products to the global brewing industry. This novel hop-derived fining agent could provide a value-added product from what is currently waste material.

Why clarify?

Early beer would likely have been much murkier on average than the beautiful pours we are accustomed to today. What first inspired the push towards a clearer pint? Some historians have speculated that the growing use of clarifying agents in recent centuries was partially due to glass vessels for serving beer replacing those made from stone or pewter, placing the appearance of the beer at centre stage. Because we have come to expect crystal clear beer, being served a cloudy pint would typically be a cause for concern for some drinkers. Though haze might sometimes be a sign that something has gone wrong in the brewing process in a way that will affect quality or flavour, it need not be the case. In fact, hazy styles of beer have seen a surge in popularity in the last few years. Take the New England IPA for example; a translucent – sometimes near opaque – juice bomb of a drink that has captivated hop enthusiasts with its rich and creamy mouthfeel. There’s also the classic German Hefeweizen (wheat beer) – a style which continues to be a favourite.

So are beer finings really needed anymore? Beer writer Roger Protz, author of more than 20 beer books and many-times editor of the annual CAMRA Good Beer Guide, thinks not. “At a time when more and more breweries are producing hazy beers, it’s quite unnecessary to use finings or other clearing agents” he says. “Usually the haze is quite low and should not deter drinkers who demand a clear pint.” 

For the sizeable group of beer drinkers who place a high value on bright beer though - who tend to be more at the traditional cask end of the bar than modern craft - its continued use might be the only way forward, at least for now. Brent Jordan concludes: “There are definitely other clarifying agents that can be used at various stages of the brewing process, often in conjunction with one another. But, particularly for cask - where achieving a steady rate of flocculation matters so much - there really isn’t anything that gives the same level of polish and pin-sharp clarity as isinglass.”

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