Beer’s Dirty Little Vegan Secret

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.

cow drinking beer image 300x285Oh 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.

Protecting Yourself

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

Online Resources
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!

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Comments

  1. Thanks so much Matt for the opportunity to guest post. Congrats on little Holden and I hope you three are doing well.

    I’ll stick around and field any beer-related questions NMA readers have. Hope you all enjoyed the post. Cheers!

  2. Great post, guys! I recently guided a friend of mine to his first beer – he is vegan and did some research as well. (I knew about Guinness, but he told me stuff I didn’t know – Newcastle for example.) Link to the post is here: http://is.gd/bmgRn

    From one vegetarian to another – cheers!
    .-= Brian Miller´s last blog ..Guest blog! My friend’s first beer. Ever. =-.

  3. I’m a fellow homebrewer! It takes a bit of time, but is so rewarding.

  4. Thanks for posting this. I am not a beer drinker -vino is my love:) but I had never thought that beer wouldn’t be vegan. Very interesante!

    • You may know this already (can’t tell from your post), but some wines use animal products for filtering as well. Barnivore.com will let you know which wines are vegan as well as the beer. Hard liquors, too!
      .-= Melissa´s last blog ..Week 9. Day 1. =-.

  5. Great post! I’ve found that most breweries are happy to let you know if you email them and ask. I usually rely on barnivore.
    I like Flying Dogs response, makes me want to support them even more now!

  6. Even though I’m not vegan, this was really interesting. I took a tour of a local brewery a few months ago and even though they said they didn’t put additives in their beer (which is why it had such a short shelf life), they never really went into detail about the different additives around.

    I will definitely pass this on to my vegan friends.
    .-= Emily @ The Southern Belle Blogs´s last blog ..Budget Week oNE – fOOD, fUN AND fARMER’S mARKET =-.

  7. Billy,

    Very nice post. For a person who has never done this before, whats your guess on the set-up cost to get going and maybe a time estimate for each batch?

    Thanks!

    • Thanks Pete. The cost of getting started depends on which type of equipment you get, but in general you are looking at $100-$150 for equipment and $20-$30 per batch for ingredients. A beginner recipe takes about 3 hours to make and will be ready to drink in 1 month.

      I’m still getting the blog off the ground and will be adding some really comprehensive content on homebrewing soon. Stay tuned ; )
      .-= Billy Broas´s last blog ..5 Best Homebrewing Books =-.

  8. Great info, Billy.

    The VeganXpress iPhone app is also a great resource and has an extensive listing of vegan beers.

  9. Exactly why drinking here in the U.K. is so difficult. Plus, it means Guinness is out the window- if anyone from the great ol’ British Isle is wondering what to do- try getting a copy of ‘The Animal Free Shopper’, perusing the Vegan Society’s website- or try some of the online vegan shops e.g Animal Aid have a great selection of wines… some beers actually have the Vegan Society’s mark on them (+some supermarkets e.g. Sainsburys/M&S are very good at labelling)- a much safer bet. Btw- just for clarity albumins are not ‘any water soluble protein’- they are a specific subset of transport proteins pretty much always within the circulatory system of mammals, or else from avian eggs- so will always be animal derived, as will pepsin, being a digestive enzyme, often taken from calves’ stomachs. Lovely. Thank you for highlighting this often unknown, and unnecessary source of animal derived products. I too often wonder when I see fellow vegans/vegetarians letting loose on a night out!

    • Glad you liked the post Laura. You’re right, as I learned through my research the U.K. has it much tougher than the U.S. when it comes to vegan beer. Thanks for the tip on albumins btw, I’ll get with Matt to correct it.
      .-= Billy Broas´s last blog ..5 Best Homebrewing Books =-.

  10. Yeah, homebrewing is where it’s at. My husband and I love it and you can do so much! If you’re not that into being creative or just want the basics places like northernbrewer.com sell very nifty recipe kits.

  11. Just goes to show you animal products are everywhere!!! I love Flying Dog- maybe that’s an excuse to buy more?! :)

  12. Thanks for sharing your expertise/knowledge and links! Extremely valuable and convenient.

  13. I want to know the first person to look at a fish’s swim bladder and think “Hm, i should dry that out and use it in my beer!”

  14. Disclaimer: I am not a vegetarian or a vegan.

    I am surprised that diatomaceous earth was on the list. I never thought of fossils as “animal products” before. This, however, brings up the question of at what point is a fossil no longer considered an animal product? I am under the impression (correct me if I am wrong) that oil comes from really old fossils…is oil and its byproducts considered to be off limits for vegans? Obviously I am taking this to a bit of an extreme, but I think it would be an interesting philosophy question of “where to draw the line”
    .-= Trevor´s last blog ..BeerPancakes: @Hoptopia I dont have any "special bottles" dark lord will be my first real special beer…i will be bringing some PA beer to share though =-.

    • I am a vegan and your question “where to draw the line” is definitely not extreme at all, to me. In fact, it is a great question. I’ve definitely confronted such philosophical debates after I became vegan. Here’s my sonal take that I’ve taken and synthesized from various sources:

      Unfortunately, I do not think anyone can technically be 100% vegan- as in living a life in which no animal has suffered due to one’s existence. For example, if one lives in the modern world, I believe one has, by default, made animals suffered. Does one live in a house? If so, then trees and lands were cleared for one’s sake, which have left animals homeless. Same goes for the roads one travels on. Non-organic produce requires chemically killing “pests.”

      In essence, yes, there is a line…and I think could differ from vegan to vegan. At the very fundamental level, I believe if a person considers him/herself a vegan, he/she must fully pledge to minimize animal suffering to the maximum possible extent. This at the very minimum includes completely eliminating meat/dairy, not supporting puppy mills, not attending entertainment such as rodeos/circuses/bullfighting/hunting/etc, and not purchasing new fur/leather. What I just listed are not necessities and can be replaced with abundant alternatives. From here, I believe one simply needs to then do the best within their circumstances (financial, time researching hidden animal products, logistics, etc.).

      Lastly, in an ideal vegan world, animal products would be completely eradicated as consumer demand would dictate the demise of all things non-vegan. For example, markets would dictate that all basketballs/footballs be made with cutting edge synthetic leather that feels better then real leather. Overall human health would be at optimal level, which would not require animal testing for swine flu, mad cow, etc. In this world, market may even dictate that everything be run on solar power, so the blurry issue of fossil fuel would be moot.

      • Thanks for the response to my comment. I really like your thought process and how you distinguish the real world from an “ideal vegan world.”

        Cheers!

      • This is an interesting discussion. I’m still a relatively new vegetarian (and not a vegan yet, but moving that direction), so I still haven’t wrapped my brain around these issues. But the simple pledge to minimize animal suffering is a good place to start. The idea of a vegan utopia is certainly appealing, especially if mass desire to live this way truly did cause the market to dictate all of this… I wonder if any scientists have ever written on the feasibility (economic, environmental, etc.) of such an existence.

  15. So the “breakfast beer” on the podcast by James at Basic Brewing Radio a few weeks ago is probably out for you! LOL It’s out for me too and I’m not a vegetarian. I’m referring to the Bacon Porter which the guest mentioned “dry porking” the beer with bacon! ;P Choke, Choke, GAG!

  16. From what I understand, Diatomaceous Earth is actually vegan. It’s not made from fossilized shells, but rather, fossilized hard-shelled algae. The “shell” in question is a silica covering on the outside of the single-celled algae, and there are no animal products in it at all.

    In fact, many vegan resources list Diatomaceous Earth filtered products (and also those using Bentonite – a silicate clay – as a filtering agent) as great vegan alternatives to those filtered with Isinglass/Gelatin/Casein, etc.

    • Here here, second. Quite late in the game here I know, but I’d like to second that Diatoms are indeed not animalia. As to the aforementioned line, is that where it is drawn? animalia?

      With regards to fossil fuels, the majority of biomass which ends up as crude is not animalia, and that which is certainly is in part made up of animals that never knew a moment of suffering in their long, fulfilling lives, but they did indeed have to die just like any other living thing, natch. Indeed many synthetic skin alternatives are composed of this same stuff, but if one were to figure say, the difference in the amount of water needed to produce these synthetics per square yard vs. the amount of water consumed by animals with an equal amount of skin, including the water needed to grow the plants the animals eat and the number of toilet flushes by the person who pushes the button in the synthetics factory and the water used to cool the slag in making the steel for the factory and everything (a difficult task I know but there are folks working on it), I would bet you dollars to buttons that the leather from the animal does indeed consume much less. Water is necessary to all life, but enough with drawing lines.

      While altruistic I’m sure in many cases, veganism is far from true north on any moral compass. Organic does not mean that pests are not controlled, just that they are controlled differently. I am all for this, but basing one’s actions on how they will make other animalia be more or less obliged is evolutionary and spiritually misguided.

      Imagine an afterlife where you have to give back everything to whom it belonged to previously, giving a belt or a pair of boots to a cow might not be such a big deal, having to return to them the contents of your stomach may be another thing, but in the end, corn owns all of you.

  17. Here’s something I came across in the news that the people reading this post might enjoy. Nottingham UK hosted the first ever Vegan Beer Festival http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2010/06/453230.html

  18. Does anyone know of any good vegan/vegetarian substitutes to Guinness stout?
    I have recently done a gravy recipe that uses Guinness as a base, and later learned that Guinness is not suitable for a vegetarian diet, but would like to leave some options open for my vegan friends.

    • If it’s just for a gravy, then almost any stout would be probably be a decent substitute. I believe I remember reading (you can verify on Barnivore) that Samuel Smith’s stout is vegan.

      Also, some people say Guinness Extra Stout (the kind you can get in the non-draught bottles; it’s harder to find) is vegan/vegetarian.

    • Try Bell’s Double Cream Stout. Delicious and vegan friendly ; )

  19. James Tritten says:

    Does anyone know about Miller High Life? That is more fitting for my budget, and if I’m going to pull this vegan thing off, I need for the High Life to be vegan friendly.

  20. Jessica Kurti says:

    Oh, so very distraught. Seriously. Have been making a gradual transition to a vegan diet for several months. Thought I had done sufficient research (do NOT want to be a junk-food vegan). Have already given up a lot. Don’t get me wrong, totally WORTH IT. But I love quality wine and beer. OK, I confess. I’m a booze hound. And now this is verboten as well?!

    Will have to thoroughly read Barnivore.com’s lists. Fortunately, Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout appears acceptable!

  21. Last I knew Trout River in Vermont uses isinglass finings in their bottled beers. The small, pub only beers might still be vegan. The owners weren’t that forthcoming with info. They claim unfiltered for all their beers but own two filters, including a D.E.

Trackbacks

  1. […] be surprised at how many non-vegan ingredients are commonly used in this fine beverage. Some such ingredients include isinglass, gelatin, charcoal, pepsin, lactose, and even insects in some cases! Isinglass, […]

  2. […] stands in the exact same category as wine. Head over to No Meat Athlete to see a list of ingredients that could be in your beer. Ingredients include isinglass, gelatin and […]

  3. […] for yourself the list of ingredients derived from […]

  4. […] Many brewers use animal-products in their brewing process for clarifying agents, head retention, flavour and colouring.  There are no regulations that require beer labels to mention non-vegan ingredients, therefore it is sometimes hard to tell whether what you are drinking is animal-free.  Here is a list of ingredients that are commonly used in beer from NoMeatAthlete.com: […]

  5. […] early on. But don’t worry! While many breweries and wineries use non-vegan practices in their brewing process there are still plenty of drinks to choose from. Barnivore is a comprehensive vegan booze website […]

  6. […] breweries (including Guiness!) use animal products in the brewing process, reports the No Meat Athlete. Like wine makers, breweries typically use animal by-products clarifying […]

  7. […] the full story and lots of links, head here. For more on vegan (and non-vegan beers), check out this post from the blog of the “No Meat Athlete” (runs on […]

  8. […] be aware that it is not vegetarian friendly as it contains a product called isinglass. According to this post on Vegan Beer by No Meat Athlete, vegan friendly breweries include Flying Dog Brewery, New […]

  9. […] BARNIVORE – A vegan beer, wine, and liquor guide PETA – Which beers are suitable for vegans? Healthy. Happy Life – Is your beer vegan? No Meat Athlete – Beer’s dirty little vegan secret […]

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