Water, yeast, malt and hops: just looking at the list of ingredients, you wouldn’t expect vegans to have any trouble drinking beer. Sadly, it’s a little more complicated than that. Some of the ingredients and processed used to brew beer can include products that aren’t vegan-friendly.
Knowing what those ingredients are and how they’re used is really helpful for understanding what beers are safe for vegans to drink…and which aren’t.
This article is here to help. Once you read through this you should know more about why some beers aren’t suitable for vegans, how to tell whether or not a beer is vegan-friendly, and what tools you can use to find more vegan beers.
- Why are some beers not suitable for vegans?
- Non-vegan ingredients
- How can I tell if my beer is vegan?
- What are the best tools for finding more vegan-friendly beers?
Why are some beers not suitable for vegans?
At its purest and most traditional, beer includes just four ingredients: water, yeast, hops, and malted grain. All those ingredients are plant-based, so you’d think beer would be suitable for people sticking to a vegan diet, right?
Alas, it’s not as simple as all that. While medieval German brewers may have been bound to these four ingredients by law, nowadays inventive breweries put all kinds of additions in their beer. And then there’s the issue of fining: a process brewers use to remove yeast particles and clarify their brews.
Beer is made when yeast converts sugary wort into alcohol. Traditionally that sugar comes from grains of barley that have been allowed to sprout a little, which converts their stores of complex starches into sugars. Slightly more adventurous beers might include other grains too, such as wheat, rye, or oats.
Yeast is not a fussy eater. It’ll gladly ferment just about any source of sucrose you choose to feed it. That’s allowed brewers to get even more creative with their ingredients, including many that aren’t vegan-friendly. Milk and honey are popular choices, but the wackier breweries may even choose to ferment cakes, doughnuts, or bacon.
While yeast is used as an ingredient in beer, you often don’t want too much of it to end up in the final product. Clumps of yeast floating around can make the beer look cloudy, which some people might find unappetising. Sometimes it can also impart off flavours.
To get around this, brewers use finings: additives that help remove yeast particles from the beer before bottling or putting it into cask. Different finings work in different ways, so brewers can often use a combination of them to get the clearest results.
Isinglass and gelatin
Isinglass is a type of gelatin made from fish swim bladders (that’s the organ fish use to control their buoyancy; there’s no urine involved here). Gelatin from other sources has a similar effect: when dissolved into beer they help the yeast to clump together (the technical term is ‘flocculate’, which is less rude than it sounds). Bigger clumps of yeast fall to the bottom of the container faster, leaving a clearer beer.
The gelatin/isinglass falls to the bottom of the container with the clumped yeast, so there are only very small quantities of it left in the beer once poured. That means brewers often won’t specify when they’ve used gelatin to fine their beer. However, strict vegans will note this is still off limits for them.
Carrageenan (Irish Moss)
More recently, brewers have started turning to seaweed to clarify their beers. Carrageenan helps to precipitate out proteins and yeast from beer, leaving a clearer, arguably more attractive drink.
Irish Moss is perhaps a little less effective than gelatin or isinglass at clarifying beer, which is why some brewers still rely on those animal-based products or use them as well.
Fining beer removes yeast and protein particles and makes it appear clear. It’s not a necessary part of the brewing process, however. Increasingly, brewers are choosing to leave their beers cloudy.
The resulting beers are perhaps less Instagram friendly and less appealing to the uninitiated. But they also don’t require the addition of animal products, and leaving yeasts and proteins in the beer can allow interesting new flavours to develop. Famously, The Kernel brewery in London doesn’t use finings in their beers.
How can I tell if my beer is vegan?
The quickest and easiest way to check if your beer is vegan is to look at the label. More and more breweries are embracing the plant-based pint and will proudly say so, either with a note or with a smart badge.
If there isn’t a note specifying that a beer is vegan, things get more difficult.
Some beers will be easy to rule out: adjuncts tend to be expensive, so most brewers will make it very clear if they’ve added something like honey or milk. They’ll also list adjuncts such as these in their list of ingredients, often in bold as many of these additions are also allergens.
However, brewers typically won’t include finings in their ingredients list as such small amounts remain in the final product. This means if you want to be completely sure your beer is vegan-friendly, you should check elsewhere for more information or get in touch with the brewery directly.
What tools can I use to find vegan beers?
One quick, handy tool for checking whether your beer is vegan is Barnivore. This site has a database of almost 50,000 beers, ciders, wines and spirits with information on their vegan credentials.
Brewers can vary their recipes over time, however. Increasingly, breweries are recognising they can expand their market to include plant-based punters without compromising on flavour by fining with carrageenan or other vegan methods. If you see a vegan beer that isn’t listed on Barnivore, consider adding its details to help other drinkers find it too.