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What is Vegan Beer? Is Your Favorite On The List?

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If there is such a thing as ‘vegan beer’, does it mean not all beer is vegan? Vegans like to joke about the hardest part of veganism being dealing with the teasing and constant protein deficiency jokes. While I agree, I think finding out not all beer is vegan, it’s a pretty close contender for that spot.

By definition, vegan beer is the one that doesn’t use any animal products in its ingredients or manufacture process. While beer is often made from barley malt, water, hops and yeast (all vegan), some brewers add animal-derived additives to clarify it like isinglass and gelatin.

Identifying which beer is vegan and which one is not can be a bit tricky.  Most countries don’t have strict regulations for labeling animal-derived ingredients in alcohol so breweries tend do not reveal if they do or do not use animal products in their processing so beer labels rarely mention their use.

Worry not, finding vegan beer is actually quite easy. But let’s take a look at everything you need to know about vegan and non-vegan-friendly beer.

Why are some beers not vegan?

Animal products can be some of the main ingredients in a beer and be easy to spot and avoided. Milk and 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.

Back in the 19th century, some brewers would not filter their beer at all until near the end of the fermentation process, which resulted in a cloudy look. They thought these occlusions were unattractive and began filtering them out with “finings” such as gelatin and isinglass.

Note: It is important to clarify that we are taking a strict approach to what veganism means, which is no animal products, whether the animal was killed or not. However, is worth mentioning, less-strict vegetarians may be ok with some of the ingredients. It is up to you to decide.

What are Finings anyway?

Finings are substances that are usually added at or near the completion of the brewing process. They are used to remove organic compounds, either to improve clarity or adjust flavor or aroma. Unless they form a stable sediment in the final container, the spent finings are usually discarded from the beverage along with the target compounds that they capture.

What is Isinglass?

Isinglass is the most common fining used to clear cask ale. it is produced from the swim bladders of fish, usually sturgeon and used to ‘clarify’ or help speed up the clarification of the beer towards the end of the production process.

In this way, tiny particles of fish are left in the beer after the brewing process is complete, making it’s not suitable for vegans and strict vegetarians.

Appearance aside, the use of isinglass has no influence on the taste of the beer. “There is no need for beer not to be vegan. Fundamentally all you need is malt, water, hops, and yeast,” says Cosmo Sutherland, head brewer at vegan-friendly brewery Beavertown.

How are vegan beers made?

what is vegan beer - 2

Modern technology has come up with countless new filtering techniques to clear up cloudy beer without the need for animal products. Most newly established craft breweries use their modern machinery instead of additives to refine their product.

Advances in centrifugation and filtration technologies have reduced the practice of using animal-derived additives in beer. For the most part, isinglass is only used in the UK, however, there are some American craft breweries that still use it to clarify beer without the use of filtration.

How to know which beers are vegan?

If you’re new to the world of vegan beer, it’s always worth asking bar staff about vegan options, especially if a bar prides itself on its organic products or craft beer. However, if you’re uncomfortable asking bar staff about vegan beer in a packed pub, there are great places to look online.

Barnivore is one such site with over 36,000 beers in its database so next time you’re unsure about a beer, chances are you’ll to find it on there.

Mass-Market Vegan Beers

If you came here solely to find out if your favorite mass-market beer is vegan, let’s quickly go over that.

With one exception, inexpensive, mass-produced beer is vegan. Foster’s, an Australia lager that sells in large quantities, is the one notable exception.

Cheap Vegan Beers

Here are some of the world’s bestselling beers, all of which are vegan:

  • Beck’s (Germany) – Get On Amazon
  • Budweiser and Bud Light (USA)
  • Coors and Coors Light (USA)
  • Corona (Mexico)
  • Harbin (China)
  • Heineken (Netherlands)
  • Lite beer from Miller (USA)
  • Miller Original and Genuine Draft (USA)
  • Pacifico (Mexico)
  • Skol (Brazil)
  • Snow (China)
  • Tsingtao (China)

We have mentioned the primary market in parenthesis but many of the above beers are brewed at regional breweries around the world.

Who decided to use fish bladder to filter beer?

In 1797 the Encyclopedia Britannica Volume IX published that isinglass was used as a clarification agent in Russia, where they were known for producing exceptionally strong isinglass-made glue.

How or when the fining process with isinglass began in beer, is unclear. Guinness first used isinglass in its Dublin brewery in the mid to late 19th century. (In 2016, Diageo, the company which manufactures Guinness, confirmed that all kegs on the market are now vegan-friendly and are made using a new process and not isinglass. Bottles and cans are still not suitable for vegans.)

Other non-vegan additives in beer

1. Glycerol monostearate

Brewers may also use some form of animal product in the later stages of beer processing, such as glycerol monostearate, which is used to create a foam or head on the finished beer.

2. Honey

Honey is added to some beers for flavoring and to sweeten the beer. Though considered suitable for vegetarians, honey is an animal product, so is not suitable for vegans.

3. 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. 

4. Gelatin

Also used as a clarifier. Gelatin is obtained from the skin, connective tissue, and bones of animals. Typically taken from cattle and frozen pigskin.

5. Casein/Potassium Caseinate

Protein found in cow milk used as a clarifier.

6. Charcoal

Used for filtering. A portion is usually produced from animal bones.

7. Diatomaceous earth

Used in filtering. Comes from fossils or seashells.

8. Pepsin

Also used to control foam; it is sometimes derived from pork.

9. White sugar

Flavor additive often whitened using bone charcoal.

10. Albium

This refers to any protein that is water-soluble. The most common type in brewing is serum albumin, which is taken from animal blood.

Bonus: Where is the vegan beer festival?

There are at least two vegan beer festivals held annually in the United States. The Vegan Beer and Food Festival takes place at Rose Bowl Stadium, around Memorial Day Weekend. Visitors can enjoy, “Unlimited pours of over 200 beers, wines, kombuchas & more.” Not far away, in sunny Scottsdale, Arizona, the Veg Out! Vegan Beer & Food Festival offers a “compilation of vegan food and drink vendors, speakers and vegan-friendly gear including clothing, skincare, and artwork.”

Vegan Beer Takeaway

Fortunately, breweries around the world are abandoning the practice of using animal byproducts for fining. As vegan diets continue to increase in popularity, the demand for vegan beers also grows and it becomes bad for business for brewers to not stay on top of the market.

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