Billy is a beer blogger at BillyBrew.com where he’s saving the world from bland, tasteless beer by teaching about flavorful craft beer. Like me, he is a homebrewer. Billy manages to avoid a beer gut by staying active in snowboarding, barefoot running, and kettlebell training.
Oh delicious beer.
Sitting there so innocently, just waiting for that lucky person to pop you open and take a sip.
If that person is vegan, however, they may be in for a startling surprise.
You Wouldn’t Think It
In its purest form, beer is made from four main ingredients: water, malt, hops, and yeast. Sure other ingredients find their way in, especially during our current American craft beer revolution where innovative brewers are really pushing the envelope, but their concoctions are usually still plant-based: raspberry wheat ales, chili pepper beers—that sort of thing.
Yup, at first glance beer seems to pass the vegan test with flying colors.
But further down the process line, past the main cooking tanks, beer often becomes a vegan no-no.
What to Watch Out For
Note: This is a good point to pause and define what I mean by vegan. To cover all bases I’ll take a strict approach and say vegan means no animal products, whether the animal was killed or not. Less-strict vegetarians may be cool with some of the following ingredients mentioned, but not others. I’ll let you use your judgment.
Although there are plenty of vegan-friendly beers out there, many breweries use animal products in the brewing process. Their most common use is as clarifying agents, but animal parts are also used for head retention, flavor, and coloring.
Because the U.S. does not have any laws requiring disclosure of non-vegan ingredients, beer labels rarely mention their use.
Some animal products are the main ingredients in a beer and are easy to spot. These are usually indicated on the label and can easily be avoided. Honey is a common example.
It’s the animal products used in smaller proportions that don’t make it to the labels that you need to watch out for.
Here is a list of the most common animal products that are used in brewing:
- Isinglass – Clarifier that is very common in brewing. Comes from the dried swim bladders of fish. Almost all cask conditioned ale uses isinglass as a clarifier, although it is more common in England than the U.S.
- Gelatin – Clarifier obtained from the skin, connective tissue, and bones of animals. Typically taken from cattle and frozen pigskin.
- Casein/Potassium Caseinate – Protein found in cow milk used as a clarifier.
- Charcoal – Used for filtering. A portion is usually produced from animal bones.
- Diatomaceous earth – Used in filtering. Comes from fossils or sea shells.
- Insects – Made into dyes and used for coloring.
- Glyceryl monostearate – Animal derived substance used to control foam.
- Pepsin – Also used to control foam; it is sometimes derived from pork.
- White sugar – Flavor additive often whitened using bone charcoal.
- Albium – Refers to any protein that is water soluble. Most common type in brewing is serum albumin, which is taken from animal blood.
- Lactose – Beers labeled as sweet, milk, or cream stouts may or may not contain lactose. Sometimes the description refers to the texture and not the ingredient. It’s best to double check these to be sure. Milk chocolate is common in certain styles, but some so-called “chocolate” porters or stouts actually contain no real chocolate at all. Some malted barley is called “chocolate malt” simply to describe the flavor the roasting imparts.
Here are a few ways you can make sure your beer is up to your standards:
Contact the Brewery – Through my research I’ve discovered that the best way to be 100% sure that a beer is vegan-friendly is to contact the brewery directly. For example, I contacted Flying Dog brewery in Maryland and learned that they are vegan-friendly. Here is part of their response:
“Our packaging manager is a vegan and we have 5 vegetarians on our staff including myself. We are always very conscientious of how we make are beer because we want to make sure that we can all enjoy it. If a consumer is concerned about our beer, or any beers, being vegan I would recommend that they ask the brewery directly what ingredients and conditioning methods are used.”
- Gwen, Flying Dog Quality Assurance
1. Barnivore.com – Very clearly labeled site and the data is based on real communication with the brewery. Some of the information is out of date so you may want to double check it.
Here are some of the bigger breweries from the list. Keep in mind these are breweries that are 100% vegan-friendly or unfriendly, but most breweries have brands that fall into both categories.
Vegan-Friendly: Flying Dog Brewery, New Belgium, Magic Hat.
Not Vegan-Friendly: Guinness (although there’s debate about their Extra Stout), Bear Republic Brewing, Newcastle.
2. Brewery Websites – Some breweries put their vegan status right on their website. For example, the FAQ section of Rogue Ales says that they are vegan-friendly.
3. Google Search – Simply searching for a specific beer is a good strategy.
Homebrewing – Want to really be sure of what is in your beer? Try homebrewing. You can control exactly what ingredients are used, plus it is a really fun hobby. If you’re not the DIY type then maybe you have a generous homebrewing neighbor who will hook you up.
Are you a vegetarian or vegan who enjoys sipping suds? How do you make sure your beer is safe to drink? I’d love to hear from you down in the comments. Cheers!