They might seem unlikely culprits, but the drinks you serve with lunch or dinner might contain unexpected and unwanted animal ingredients. Here’s how you can avoid them.
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It’s a common enough mistake: the host has planned the perfect vegetarian dinner and spent hours cooking sublime food without a trace of meat or fish. Even the odd, notoriously sneaky element, such as gelatin in the pudding, or anchovy in a bottled sauce, has been studiously avoided.
Despite such precautions, the liquid refreshment could still be unsuitable for vegetarians and vegans. Animal products may well have been used to make the wine or beer.
Avoiding Animal Products
Animal by-products can be used in two ways: as a clarifying agent (the vast majority of cases) and, very occasionally, as a coloring agent.
Although technically no trace of a fining agent should remain in the finished product, committed vegetarians and vegans will want to avoid drinks that have utilized animal products in any way.
Several animal products might be used in the making of wine during the clarifying or ‘fining’ process. Put simply, fining is when the spent yeasts (which have done their job of turning the sugar to alcohol) and any minuscule bits of leaves, stems and so on are removed, leaving a clear liquid.
A fining agent is added, which binds to the debris, making larger particles that settle and can be removed relatively easily, much in the way that egg white is used to clarify a consommé.
Indeed, egg white (albumen) is used as a fining agent, as is casein (a milk protein). Blood from cows has been used to fine wine in the past, but this practice was banned during the CJD crisis. It’s unlikely that you would come across wines made this way now, unless they were made and bottled years ago.
Gelatin, however, is still widely used in the wine world. Isinglass, which is produced from the swim bladders of fish, usually sturgeon, is another frequently used fining agent.
Beer, Spirits And Other Drinks
Beer is usually filtered to remove unwanted debris, but occasionally it’s fined as well, and sometimes isinglass or gelatin are the agents.
Fining agents aren’t used to make spirits, which are distilled after fermentation, removing impurities. The color in ‘brown spirits’ (rum, whisky, brandy, etc) comes from ageing the spirit in oak barrels for a length of time. Or, in some products, caramel is added to give the desired color. None of the ‘botanicals’ that give gin its characteristic aromas and flavors are animal-related.
However, watch out for cochineal, the pink food coloring derived from a type of beetle. Cochineal is used to produce some fruit drinks, milkshake mixes and even a few alcoholic drinks, such as the bright cerise Campari.
Mezcal (a Mexican drink related to tequila), sometimes bottled with a worm in it, and the bottles of ‘whisky’ containing snakes found in some Asian countries are obvious non-contenders for vegetarian or vegan drinks parties.
Aside from these, in the peculiar world of liqueurs and strange, colored, very off-beat vodkas, there may be some that contain animal-derived coloring agents which are not listed on the label. So, if you’re in doubt over something other than a white or brown spirit, particularly if it was bottled or purchased outside the EU, a modicum of suspicion is justified.
The good news is there are other fining agents that cause no problems, even for committed vegans. The most commonly used is bentonite, a highly absorbent natural clay. Bentonite is a heavy substance, so it sinks quickly in the liquid, taking with it any unwanted bits and pieces.
A type of earth fining is sometimes used in beer-making too, and certain beers are produced using Irish moss (a dried seaweed) instead.
Increasingly, many wines, especially the richer, more powerful reds, are not fined at all. The winemaker might decide that the process of removing every particle strips the wine of some of its complex character. Instead, the wine settles naturally. This may take quite some time, and probably won’t be the method used to make lighter, less expensive reds.
Finding Veggie And Vegan Wines
Wines that have not been fined at all often say so on the label – look for a proper description of the wine making methods on the back label, or for a simple reference like the word ‘unfined’ printed on the front.
Otherwise, you may well need to do more detective work. This might mean researching your favorite wine at length, using the winery website, general vegetarian/vegan information websites or even contacting the winery direct to get exact details.
The good news is that an increasing number of stores now label their wines and beers very clearly with this information.
There are specialist merchants, too, such as the mail-order company Vintage Roots, which, while primarily an organic wine and beer supplier, also spells out which bottles in its catalog meet the criteria (over 90 per cent of its range).
All in all, it’s certainly getting easier to find suitable drinks. As one long-time vegan puts it, “Back in 1989, when I first became a vegan, I could find no useful information without a lot of research. Now things are much better, and even the major supermarkets seem to be improving on the facts they give out. Still, I’d like to see clear signs on many more wines to help guide vegetarians and vegans like me.”