Every year Veganuary (following a Vegan diet for the month of January) gains momentum, with more and more people participating.
Recent figures suggest the 2022 Veganuary campaign inspired over 620,000 people to try veganism for a month, and many follow the vegan lifestyle long after January has finished. This all begs the question:
Can Vegans drink beer?
Is beer vegan? You would have thought so, after all, the main ingredients for most beers are malts such as barley or wheat, water, hops, and yeast. So far so good, they are all plant-based. So what could make a beer non-vegan?
Unfortunately, many beer producers use animal-derived ingredients as finings that are definitely not vegan, making the beers unsuitable for those trying to follow a cruelty-free lifestyle.
Other types of beer may also add non-vegan ingredients such as milk in a milk stout, honey in a mead, or for sweetening other types of beer, and there are even some beers that add actual meat such as scrapple to a breakfast stout (definitely not Vegan!).
Let’s take a look at why some beers are classed as non-vegan beer, and which animal-derived ingredients are most commonly used in beer (and why?), before taking a look at some of our favorite beers and whether they fit with a vegan lifestyle.
When is a Beer Not Vegan?
Lagers, ales, stouts, and porters all use the same four basic ingredients of
- Cereal grains (barley or wheat for example)
All vegan things and totally devoid of animal products or the byproducts of animals.
However, different beer styles and recipes from different brewers may add other ingredients for a more unique flavor.
Some non-vegan beers are more obvious than others.
Beers that are brewed with honey (remember honey comes from bees), milk stouts, and some of the fashionable Hazy IPAs or milkshake beers will add lactose (lactose comes from a cow), and traditional oyster stouts (flavored with oysters!).
There’s even a “cock ale” which comes from a 17th-century British recipe and is sometimes recreated in small batches by breweries – until someone actually reminds them adding whole chicken to a beer is pretty gross!
These beers aren’t the problem – any self-respecting vegan will be aware of the implications of milk, honey, oysters, or even chicken being added to a beer and stay well clear.
The ingredients will normally be listed on the label or even included in the name of the beer – Honey Ale, Milk Stout, or even Cock Beer should be a dead giveaway.
The problem arises from the brewing techniques a beer uses mainly, in the finings.
Finings – It’s All About The Fish Bladders!
The less obvious difference between vegan and non-vegan beers comes when brewers add finings to the beer, which include ingredients that have been obtained from killing or exploiting animals.
Common non-vegan-friendly products used as finings include
Often derived from products like fish bladders, they are introduced to the brewing process during filtration and, as they are not part of the final product, there is no legal requirement to list them on food labels as part of the ingredients, even though most vegans would object to the use of such additional animal-derived ingredients.
Many British brewers still use isinglass, especially cask ale (real ale) producers, to fine their beers, but modern, vegan-friendly alternatives exist such as Irish moss, which is frequently found in many homebrew recipes.
What Is Isinglass and How Is It Used in Beer?
Tell any beer drinker there is fish in their beer, not just fish but the bladders of fish, and they are probably going to be surprised if not disgusted.
A fishy beer doesn’t sound too appealing, does it?
But until recently nearly all beers used isinglass – a type of gelatin derived from the swim bladders of sturgeon or subtropical fishes.
Perhaps the most common fining agent used for clarifying beer is isinglass, which has been used since the 19th century by brewers wanting clearer pints to appeal more to demanding customers.
Originating from the now obsolete Dutch word huizenblaas (huizen as a kind of sturgeon and blaas meaning bladder), isinglass was originally only made from sturgeon, but nowadays less invasive fish (and less expensive) are more commonly used.
To a lesser extent, isinglass is also used as a fining in white wine production.
Swim bladders are taken from the fish and typically dried on site in China where they are exported as a fining for beers.
After being formed into various shapes, they are added to a beer where, through a process of electrostatic interaction, they combine with any leftover yeast or proteins in the beer.
As a larger aggregate forms, it settles rapidly helping to easily clear the beer.
When the finings are removed by a filtration process from the beer, there is very little isinglass or fish bladder remaining, but the idea of any leftover is enough to scare the vast majority of people off, even though isinglass doesn’t affect the flavor of a beer.
However, it certainly prevents a beer from being truly vegan.
What Is Gelatin and How Is It Used in Beers?
Gelatin is a type of protein that is used for fining beer with pretty much the same process as isinglass. However, it is made from boiling the skin, tendons, ligaments, and bones of animals.
It’s added to many other products to clear them, including shampoos, face masks, and other cosmetics. It can also be found in many sweets such as marshmallows or jelly candies, and even as the coating on many pharmaceutical drugs.
Gelatin can be added during the fermentation process or directly to a keg after fermentation to clear the beer.
What Is Glycerin and How Is It Used in Beers?
Glycerin is more tricky when it comes to deciding whether it makes beer non-vegan or not, as it can be made from both plant oil or animal fats, although most ingredients won’t disclose what type of glycerin has been used.
For this reason, it is known as a hidden non-vegan ingredient and, if the beer in question is known to have used glycerin for fining, it may be best to avoid the beer, unless it states plant oil glycerin rather than just glycerin.
Glycerin derived from an animal source is often called tallow and will be taken from beef or mutton fat.
What Is Casein and How Is It Used in Beers?
Casein is a type of cow milk protein that is commonly used by beer makers as a fining for beer and as an alternative to animal gelatins, which can come from animal bones, animal blood, or animal skins.
Other milk byproducts used as part of the fining process can include whey and lactose, which, although fine for vegetarian beers, don’t make a drink vegan.
As many people have a casein allergy or lactose intolerance, this is one fining agent or ingredient which will normally be highlighted on the label of the beer if contained.
Allergy labeling is required by law in most states now, and in overseas territories, too.
What Other Non-Vegan Ingredients Are Also Used in the Brewing Process?
Although we have already touched on other ingredients added for flavor, such as milk, honey, oysters, or even meats such as scrapple and chicken (ugh!), there are other hidden fining agents which are of animal origin.
- Eggs – The egg white protein, also referred to as albumen, will often be used as a fining agent for wine, but also, less commonly, beer.
- Cochineal and carmine – Typically use for color, a red dye is made out of scaly insects called cochineal
- Chitin – a fiber that is often used for fining beers. vegan versions do exist but most typically it will be made from the byproducts of insects or shellfish.
Tips for How To Tell if a Beer Is Vegan or Not
It’s not always that easy to find out if a beer is vegan-friendly or not without doing a little extra detective work.
Many of the brewing processes and fining agents used by the brewers don’t have to be disclosed, and they often want to keep the finer details of the brewing process secret.
In both the UK and the US, and also much of Europe, it is not mandatory for alcohol brands to list non-vegan ingredients in the beers they produce.
The best way to avoid many of these hidden animal byproducts is to choose a beer from a brewer who uses modern brewing techniques.
Mostly only the very traditional older breweries use animal-based finings today. Modern filtration equipment employed by the larger brewers and many craft brewers will be easier to store than in the past, and often provides better clearer results than the more traditional methods.
As veganism becomes more popular, many brewers are making the voluntary decision to move away from animal ingredients and use more modern advanced filtration techniques.
As recently as 2018 the Guinness Brewery in Ireland bowed to public pressure and stopped using isinglass as a fining agent in all their products in favor of vegan-friendly filtration methods.
Some craft beer producers in the US are even actively marketing their beers as vegan, with text on the label indicating it’s vegan or a vegan-friendly logo/trademark (microbreweries who proudly display their vegan status include Alternation Brewing Company, Little Machine, and Modern Times Brewery.).
If you are in doubt about whether a beer is vegan or not, here are a few steps you can follow:
Check with the manufacturer. The most reliable way of determining whether the beer you are drinking is vegan or not is to go directly to the horse’s mouth. Most company websites, although they may not disclose the information, will have contact details where you can shoot them an email or give them a call. If you have a favorite craft brewery their website may even have a logo to show they are a vegan-friendly brewery. Look for the vegan symbol. Although not required by law, many companies will include the vegan-friendly logo on their packaging, especially when sold in shops – more sales always make sense! Never underestimate the value of the ever-growing vegan market.
Look for allergens listed on a label, Although it may not be a legal requirement to list any byproducts from animals, common allergens like milk, eggs, fish, and shellfish are voluntarily listed on the labels of many food and alcoholic beverages.
Online resources. There are several vegan-run websites that list whether a beer is vegan-friendly or not. Respected vegan alcohol website Barnivore, for example, has a database of over 56,000 different beers, wines, and liquors and their vegan status. Even the vegan giant that is PETA has a list of beer companies that do not use animal ingredients, additives, or processing agents on their website. If you can’t trust PETA who can you trust?
Popular Beers Which Are Vegan Friendly
If you are looking for an inexpensive and widely available vegan beer then you are in luck, as most of the world’s top-selling favorite beers are now vegan-friendly.
The only major exception is Fosters of Australia which still uses isinglass in some of its flagship brands.
But here is a list of some of the world’s best-selling vegan beer brands
- Budweiser and Bud Light (USA)
- Coors and Coors Lite (USA)
- Miller Lite, High Life, and genuine Draft (USA)
- Heineken (Netherlands)
- Becks (Germany)
- Corona (Mexico)
- Stella Artois (Belgium)
- Guinness (Ireland)
- Michelob and Michelob Ultra (USA)
- Pabst Blue Ribbon (USA)
Popular craft beers which are Vegan friendly include:
- Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Torpedo IPA
- Lagunitas IPA
- Harpoon IPA
- Samuel Adams Boston Beer
- Anchor Steam and Anchor Porter
- Deschutes Obsidian Stout
- Samuel Smiths Oatmeal Stout
- Blue Moon, Pale Moon, and Belgium White, but obviously not the Honey Wheat Moon
- Goose Island IPA
- Abita (except the Honey Rye Ale)
- New Belgium Fat Tire
Please note these lists are by no means exhaustive – there are many larger mass-produced commercial brands and smaller craft brews on the market which are vegan-friendly.
If you have your own favorite craft brewery, consider asking them whether their beers are vegan.
Is Beer Vegan? Final Thoughts
Most of the time, yes – beer is vegan.
The vast majority of commercial beers don’t contain any animal ingredients, but, because a few do still use animal byproducts in their brewing and filtration process, strict vegans need to be careful about what they decide to drink.
Vegan beers are everywhere, as long as you know what you are looking for.
Wherever alcohol is sold you will normally find at least Corona, Budweiser, or Guinness in stock, so you’re never going to be without a vegan option for beer.
As the world gets more aware of what is vegan, brewers are increasingly moving away from using animal products in their brewing process too.
Looking ahead to the future, non-vegan beer is going to get even rarer than it is today…which can’t be a bad thing!!
Finally – no more of that “cock ale” we mentioned earlier.