Is Beer Vegan? It Depends…

With a rise in popularity of plant-based eating, you may be wondering how you can make your diet more animal-friendly. There could be a few favorites holding you back from a vegan regimen – ice cream, bacon, or even beer. Many don’t think about beverages falling in the vegan/non-vegan category, and yes, beer is one of them.  You may be asking, why is beer not vegan? A better question to ask is:

Is beer vegan? What makes some beers not vegan?

From ingredients to brewing and purifying techniques, animal products can be a part of the beer-making cycle in ways you wouldn’t expect. Luckily, it’s easier than ever to find animal-friendly options that rival the big names in beer. Read on for some history, and vegan beer alternatives – they’re hops even the bunnies can support.

Like many great European countries, Germany luxuriates in its past and its history. With its strong Bavarian roots, and its penchant for passing down traditions, it is no wonder that the art of crafting beer in Germany has stood the test of centuries. It’s only been recent that new forms of beer have become more common in Germany and even those are slow to take hold.

What Makes a Vegan Diet?

It can seem like a new diet emerges every month, but to refresh, a vegan diet excludes all animal products. In a beer-related context, this means anything from honey to more obscure-sounding ingredients like castoreum, casein, isinglass, cochineal or carmine. Research their origin if you dare, and be prepared to recognize them in other foods you may love. These ingredients may seem unsuspecting, but if you’re committing to an animal-friendly diet, you’ll have to watch out for these common few.

What Ingredients Should you Look Out For?

Beer is made up of a central few ingredients: grain, hops, yeast, and water. If that were truly it, the spectrum of possible beer would be much smaller than it actually is. Added ingredients and brewing variations are what make unique beers, but also complicate animal-friendly status.

When it comes to brewing, there are a few common ingredients and brewing techniques that can take a beer off the vegan list. A number of popular clarifying techniques are not so animal friendly, so even if a beer’s ingredients check out, the way the beer was brewed may be the culprit.

Some of these fall into the category of “finings,” or ingredients used to clear impurities from beer during the brewing cycle, while others are used to alter flavor, color and body. Honey is a more obvious example, but those sneaky ingredients like isinglass (dried fish bladders), gelatin (bone, skin and tissue), casein (cow milk protein), crushed insects (yes, this one is even in Skittles), and lactose (milk sugar) take a brew off a vegan list.

What Makes These Ingredients Non-Vegan?

  • Lactose
    • This sugar from cow milk is used to enhance richness and the body of a beer, particularly in darker beers like milk stouts, sweet stouts, and cream stouts. An obvious vegan no-no.
  • Gelatin
    • This ingredient is a protein made from collagen of an animal and is boiled to reduce it to a workable ingredient. In beer, it acts as a magnet of sorts, pulling other proteins and particles to help the beer settle faster, accelerating the clarification process of the liquid. The addition of gelatin during fermentation allows for a clearer beer to kegged, preventing a murky first pour. 
  • Isinglass 
    • Similar to gelatin, isinglass is made from fish bladders and is used to clarify beer, settling yeast and proteins. You gotta wonder who was the first to figure out this technique.
  • Carmine, or “cochineal extract”
    • This derives from a Central and South American-based insect that feeds on a red cactus. When dried, the insects can be crushed into powder and used commonly to dye textiles, and even beer. While most beers land anywhere between a light amber to dark brown, carmine can be used to alter the hue a bit and make for a more unique brew shade. 
  • Honey
    • Honey is a rather versatile ingredient and can impact the brewing process differently, depending on when it is introduced. Adding honey in the boil process can increase final alcohol measurements or impact flavor by adding honey notes, while adding it later can help carbonate the beer as well. Although it can pack a punch as a multi-use beer ingredient, it ultimately does not pass the vegan test.
  • Charcoal 
    • Sometimes used in filtering, this material is usually produced from animal bones.
  • Diatomaceous earth 
    • Also used in filtering, this material derives from fossils or sea shells. While these are not currently live animals being harmed, the vegan argument can still be made. It all depends on how strict your vegan values go.
  • Glyceryl monostearate or Pepsin 
    • These are animal-sourced substances used to control foam in a beer. 
  • Albium 
    • This indicates a protein that is water soluble. In brewing, the most often found is serum albumin, which is taken from animal blood.

The Label Debacle

Why is Beer Not Vegan - Label Debacle

Unfortunately, beer is not held to the same standard as food when it comes to labeling ingredients. While food is regulated by the FDA, alcohol is regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) as a relic of the Prohibition era. The TTB does not require nutrition labels, but after pushback from health advocates and related groups for more alcohol transparency, labels were clarified as optional in 2013.

The argument has been made that the presence of a nutrition label may lead people to assume a beer contains nutritional value, and is therefore good for you – interesting. That may be urban legend, but overall, the TTB has yet to proclaim what is essential and universally required information for a beer label, and therefore has left it up to manufacturers. Beers that are advertised specifically as “low carb” do have to back up the claim with a label, but otherwise it’s a pretty open playing field.

As a result of these obscure and hodgepodge labeling rules, knowing just what’s in a beer, and if it checks out as vegan, can be a little challenging. With snack foods you can do a quick ingredients check, but beer isn’t always so straightforward. Health advocates and vegan beer drinkers have begun to demand more transparency around ingredients so they can drink worry-free and in line with their diet values.

So, What’s Used Today?

If a beer is labeled as vegan, then, you may be wondering what ingredients and process was used to make it so. Technological advancements in centrifuge and clarifying technology have made obscure elements like fish bladders a less needed component of the beer-making process.

Beer making dates back to the Sumerians of Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago, leaving a lot of time to experiment with processes and ingredients. Like any worthwhile experiment, it’s led to some happy accidents and discoveries. While non-vegan brewing methods are often faster and more available, a rise in vegan beer demand has made it worthwhile to pursue alternatives.

Short and sweet

When it comes to manipulating flavor, the pattern repeats itself – change up ingredients and process. To play with varying taste profiles, timing and temperature can work in your favor to keep things vegan. Dehusked chocolate is an alternative to add dimension to a beer, or mashing at a higher starting temperature can enhance flavor differently, for example.

There are a host of alternatives to honey as well: corn sugar, Belgian candi syrup, molasses, maple syrup, treacle, dry malt extract, agave nectar, and demerara sugar can all be swapped as priming sugars, all while pardoning bees. Though it may not lend the same creaminess that lactose would, there are a whole host of options for vegan brews, making it more accessible than ever.

These are the Finings

A majority of vegan violations occur during the clarification stage of brewing where “finings” are employed. Rather than using a fish bladder, isinglass or gelatin, gravity itself can perform the same clarifying duties, but just takes a little longer. Similarly, “cold crashing” is a temperature-induced beer clarifier, where you place the in-process beer in a freezer and let the ice do the rest. Irish Moss is a tried and true fining agent, as well as hybrid products like whirlfloc, which is a blend of Irish Moss and purified Kappa carrageenan. Bentonite (clay from volcanic ash) and polyclar (a plastic particulate) are more unique but reliable and vegan-approved methods to clarify a beer. These earth-based techniques get the job done and leave animals unharmed in the process.

Benefits of Vegan Brewing and Beer Alternatives

If you’re inclined towards activism, opting for vegan beers is a way to continue supporting a plant-based diet. You may think that only small-scale labels offer vegan beers, but even big names have jumped on the plant-based offerings.

Here is a PETA-approved (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, so you know they mean business) list of vegan beers – and the good news is, it’s long! From Anheuser-Busch’s Bud Light to a Sierra Nevada Stout, you may not have to sacrifice your favorites to enjoy a good beer. If you’d like to double-check a beer’s vegan status, you can run it through this robust database via Barnivore.

The Future of Vegan Beer

People in rising numbers are demanding market transparency and honesty, especially among Millennial consumers, and are discerning with spending when it comes to their values. A huge market for vegan beer exists, and activists want to be able to enjoy themselves. There is still much to be seen when it comes to regulating beer labeling and ingredients, but individual brewers see the value in being up-front with their practices to align with vegan demand.

With practice and a little research, brewing a vegan beer is possible and customizable. From IPAs to ales, stouts and lagers, it seems like vegan beer options aren’t slowing down any time soon – in fact, there are entire festivals devoted to vegan beer, like the Los Angeles vegan beer festival going on its 6th year, hosting over 40 breweries showcasing 100+ beers. As beer connoisseurs continue to demand variety and transparency in vegan options, you’re sure to see even more mainstreaming of animal-friendly brewing practices and beers to boast.

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