Even if you skipped out on Hebrew school, the basic tenets of keeping kosher are easy to remember: no bacon, no fins-and-scales-free seafood like shrimp, no chicken parm or other meat-and-dairy combos. When it comes to beer, though, the rules start to get a bit fuzzier. With the notable exception of a handful of producers such as Shmaltz Brewing Company, most breweries in the United States are not officially certified kosher, although some, like Blue Moon Brewing Company, have specific beers that are.
“Around 20 years ago, there were a lot of misconceptions about light-colored beers, dark beers, and flavored beers,” says Rabbi Tzvi Rosen, who works at Star-K, one of the largest kosher certification agencies in the U.S. “I and a few of the other kosher administrators started a lifelong research into the kosher status and problems of beer-making.”
Over the years, Rosen has worked with large-scale breweries such as Samuel Adams to help them achieve kosher certification. Part of his ongoing interest in the matter stems from his personal love of beer—including some brews without official certification. That’s because all the ingredients permitted in brewing by the 500-year-old Reinheitsgebot, or German purity laws, are essentially fair game. In their natural, unprocessed state, barley, yeast, hops, and water are all considered parve—meaning they contain neither meat nor dairy—and are okay for consumption.
“From our standpoint, the craft breweries that adhere to the German purity laws can generally be assumed to be acceptable, even if not certified,” Rosen says. Much of the confusion comes from the fact that those two terms have distinctly different connotations. “The water from your faucet is acceptable to drink, but a bottle of Dasani water from Coca-Cola is a certified product.”
We are members of the Jewish community and although we don’t keep kosher at home, we feel that ensuring that all of our beers are kosher makes everyone from that community feel welcome at the table.”
These days, plenty of breweries add additional ingredients, both for the sake of flavor and production. The coffee beans in your porter or the cacao nibs in your bourbon barrel-aged stout require rabbinical approval, just as the gelatin frequently used as a clarifying agent does. The latter is especially problematic, since it’s essentially never listed on the label and may contain bones of animals not slaughtered according to the strict rules of kashrut. Isinglass, another fining agent common in the British brewing industry, comes from fish and can also cause issues, even though only trace amounts remain in the finished product.
“In general, the world has advocated for much more transparency than was the case 25 years ago,” Rosen says. For a long time, that demand focused more on the food industry than the alcohol one, but the times are changing. More and more consumers care if there are sulfites in their wine or artificial flavorings in their beer. “There is a much higher consumer demand for accountability than just saying, ‘We can assume that it’s kosher.’”
Obtaining kosher certification is both time-consuming and expensive, which is why so few breweries in the U.S. attempt it. In order to be considered kosher certified, a brewery is subject to random inspections by rabbis and must use traceable, individually certified ingredients in its brews.
For Theo and Sonia Marie Leikam, who opened Leikam Brewery in Portland, Oregon in 2014, seeking kosher certification was part of a statement of their core values. Because their nanobrewery uses exclusively algae as a clarifying agent rather than gelatin, all of their beers are both vegan and kashrut-friendly. Their popular Hanukkah-themed Maccabeer IPA is already almost sold out for the year.
“Our brewery is a reflection of who we are as people. One of our big founding principles was embracing community,” Sonia Marie says. “We are members of the Jewish community and although we don’t keep kosher at home, we feel that ensuring that all of our beers are kosher makes everyone from that community feel welcome at the table.”
If you’re worried about committing a faux-pas at a Hanukkah party, it’s probably best to play it safe with a kosher-certified beer. For the most part, however, steer clear of flavored beers, stick to the Reinheitsgebot, and don’t stress. At the end of the day, the spirit of the holiday is about celebration.
“On Hanukkah, although we’re there to praise God, we also have revelry,” Rosen says. “When we have a Star-K Hanukkah party, we always have beer.”
L’chaim to that.