As the number of vegans in the United States and the world grows, so does the concern about vegan beers. While I’m not a vegan, I do have many vegan friends and try to accommodate their needs accordingly. First, let’s define what a vegan is for those of you who don’t know or may be a bit hazy on the concept. Veganism is a form of vegetarianism in which no animal products are consumed. This means no eggs, dairy, meat, honey, or any product that is made by or derived from an animal. This often extends to other “cruelty free” products that don’t test on animals. Fortunately, most modern beers are vegan. There are, however, exceptions. I’ll break down the obvious ones that are easy to avoid, then I’ll get into the hidden non-vegan beers that are much harder to avoid.
Today’s craft brewers continue to experiment with ingredients to create new and interesting beers. While some items have been used for as long as beer has been made, others are relatively new to the brewing world. Honey has long been used in beer as a way to augment flavor and fermentable sugars. In modern times, there are relatively few beers that use honey. Fortunately, they list honey as an ingredient on the label since it’s considered a special adjunct. Honey is pretty easy to avoid.
Meat is a product that is relatively new to the world of beer and brewing and more specifically, bacon. Bacon is the current culinary craze. You can hardly find a menu without at least one food item augmented with bacon. Now this craze is making it’s way into beers. The most notable beer to use bacon is the Rogue Voodoo Bacon Maple Ale. Right now, Bacon seems to be the most common meat ingredient used in beers, but the brewers are pretty proud of this and label it clearly and prominently. Another meat beer style that has seen a rise in popularity is oyster stouts. These beers are brewed with oyster shells or even the full oyster. I have heard rumor of other meats in beers, including bull testicles for a “Rocky Mountain Oyster” beer. Again, these beers are pretty easy to avoid since they’re clearly labeled.
Another adjunct making a bit of a resurgence is lactose or milk sugar. This was once a popular ingredient used in “Milk Stouts” or “Cream Stouts” in Britain. It’s largely used to add a bit of sweetness to a stout while adding a silky mouthfeel. Lactose is a non-fermentable sugar. This is another easy one to avoid if you stay away from beers called “Milk,” “Cream,” or “Sweet” stout.
Fining and Filtration
While special non-vegan ingredients are pretty easy to avoid, it’s the non-vegan items used in the brewery that can form a hidden danger. The hidden danger lies in how the beer is filtered or clarified. Today, most beers are clarified or filtered via some mechanical method that removes heavy proteins and excess yeast. Centrifuges and filters are the two most popular methods to clarify beer. They are, of course, vegan.
While these modern methods create vegan beers, some of the older methods using odd “fining” items don’t. Finings are items that carry a positive charge. When dropped into beer, they quickly attract the yeast and other particles which carry a negative charge. This allows a beer to clarified very quickly when compared with allowing it to sit for a long time. There are 4 main fining agents used in alcohol production: egg whites (mostly wine), diatomaceous earth, gelatin, and isinglass. Diatomaceous earth (DE) is a mineral formed from fossilized marine alga called diatoms. It is not an animal product and is thus vegan.
Gelatin (in most cases) is derived from cows or horses. It was once popular with US craft brewers due to its cheapness and availability, when compared with isinglass or the large filtration systems the large macro breweries could afford. As the price of filtration units and centrifuges came down and became more practical for smaller brewers to buy, they largely switched over to the more effective and modern methods. At this point in time, gelatin is probably not used in modern craft breweries.
Isinglass is the main culprit and the biggest hidden danger to vegans. Isinglass is derived from the swim bladders of fish. One of the main fish used is the Nile Perch which is harvested from Lake Victoria where it’s an invasive species. There are other fish used from other areas of the world with unknown environmental impact.
Despite the many options available to brewers, many still use isinglass. It’s most commonly used on the British Isles with more traditionally minded brewers, especially producers of unfiltered, cask conditioned ales. Many small craft brewers in the US are still using isinglass for various reasons.
While none of the isinglass or gelatin make it into the final product, it still involves the use of animal products to produce beers in this method. These items are not listed on the label. Your best bet is to email your brewery of choice and ask them directly. Most will be happy to answer your questions. Most are probably vegan. If the brewery doesn’t respond, there is a lot of good information compiled by various vegan groups. Here is a link to Barnivore’s very thorough list of beers and wines.
I hope this helps my vegan friends and blog followers. What are you’re favorite confirmed vegan beers? Which beers do you wish were vegan?