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Below The Surface

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Are there fish in your beer?

As a craft beer lover and avid home brewer I was thrilled when Linda Bowden, ECHO's Life-Long Learning coordinator, announced that she was planning the beer-themed event called "FeBREWary: The Science of Beer." As an aquatic biologist, I'm always seeking ways to link our local aquatic fauna to things that people really identify with and care about... like beer!

As it turns out, there is a quite a long history of using fish parts to clarify beer and other fermented beverages. Many fish would sink without some extra buoyancy provided by a structure called an air bladder. An air bladder is essentially a bag made of collagen into which fish can add or remove gas as they move up or down in depth. This allows fish to maintain neutral buoyancy- not sinking or floating, but hovering in one place. As with many anatomical features, air bladders can provide additional functions beyond buoyancy control.


For example, drum use the air bladder to produce and amplify a thumping sound (like a bass drum) during spawning season. Other fish, like long-nose gar and bowfin, can thrive in warmer waters that have low amounts of dissolved oxygen by gulping air and passing oxygen from surface air into their blood stream via their air bladders.



The air bladder is an essential structure for many fish, but it's the collagen from which it's made that matters to beer lovers. Consumers of the vast majority of beer styles look for clarity in the glass along with satisfying flavor. Most modern breweries use some form of clarification to achieve the bright clear appearance that consumers expect. Among several options for achieving clarity is isinglass, which is made from- you guessed it- fish air bladders. By extracting and processing fish air bladders, the collagen building blocks are dissolved into an acidic solution to make isinglass. When the isinglass is added to beer, millions of tiny charged collagen particles bind to oppositely charged particles of suspended yeast cells and other dissolved by-products of fermentation (hop oils, protein, etc.) that can make beer cloudy. Once added, the binding action of isinglass forms larger, more dense particles that sink to the bottom of the container and the beer "drops clear." In as little as two days, a batch of beer will go from hazy (photo on left) to clear (photo on right) and be ready to carbonate and drink.

How the use of fish parts in the brewing process got started is not well known. One of the most likely scenarios that I've come across is one in which ancient people used air bladders to carry liquids, including beer. Acidic beverages, like beer and wine, likely dissolved some collagen and created favorable conditions for clarification to occur. Perhaps some ancient ale drinker set down his or her bladder of beer for a day or two, only to discover a clearer drink later on.

Want to find out more about intersection of science and the enjoyment of good beer? Join us at ECHO on the evening of February 9th. Prost!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Construction Update: AV & Insulation - That's a Wrap!

It may be getting colder outside, but ECHO's been heating up the Lakeside Pavilion construction scene with hardhat tours, new floors, eco-insulation, and the electrical installation for our new audiovisual (AV) system that resembles a concert hall pipe organ more than electrical conduit.

Coming soon, the new hi-tech interactive AV system in the Lakeside Pavilion will have one large screen flanked by two monitors on each side. ECHO staff is busy developing new touch-screen demonstrations that integrate technology such as a projection microscope to take a closer at snake skin and audience participation bird song games. And thanks to an National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, this fall ECHO will be adding 3D capability to explore our watershed in ways that have never been done before!


ECHO is also reaching new eco-friendly heights with the Lakeside Pavilion striving for LEED Platinum certification - the highest level achievable for a green building. Investing in high efficiency insulation is one of the most effective strategies for an earth-friendly building project that also saves money from the start. One of the insulation products that ECHO is using is "Supergreen" spray urethane foam. This spray foam does not affect the ozone layer, has a great insulation value (R-Value) per inch, creates a tight building envelope, and is very versatile - you can fill in all sort of nooks and crannies in walls, ceilings, basements, and roofs in commercial and residential buildings.


ECHO was the first LEED certified building in the State of Vermont, and though we are proud of this distinction, we continue to look for ways to make improvements as we grow and expand. And along the way, if we can share a thing or two about greener choices that can be made in construction, all the better.

Photos top: JAM construction team installing beam under AV conduit, (C) Julie Silverman
Photo lower left and right: Supergreen spray insulation in the ceiling and walls, (C) Julie Silverman

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Snake Charmer

During holiday breaks, myself and my coworkers in the Animal Care Department experience a very real reminder of just how much of our workload in covered by our volunteers. Many of them take holiday breaks from school and leave us for a few weeks, and we scramble to keep our animal collection healthy and happy. By the numbers, our volunteers contribute 70% of the total hours worked in Animal Care. This year, I got some extra help with one part of my job right as volunteer numbers were starting to dwindle.

Near the end of December one of my dedicated volunteers, Tyson White, took a bold step and did one of the two public demonstrations that our department gives each day.

Tyson, a senior at Champlain Valley Union High School, chose to work for us as part of Grad Challenge, a public service learning requirement at his school. In addition to learning all the in's and out's of our Sunday afternoon Animal Care duties, Tyson developed a bond with Winston, the Eastern ratsnake that lives in our Animal Care room. He first learned how to comfortably handle the snake and watched my version of "Meet the black ratsnake" demo. For his presentation, Tyson added some information about breeding time for the snakes and brought this information to a small crowd gathered to meet Winston. He did a great job, speaking comfortably with a four and a half foot snake in his hands. I enjoyed myself as Tyson's supervisor, mentor, and audience member.

Next week, ECHO celebrates our volunteers who keep us running. Stop by and help us thank them for all they do!