Beer looks like it’s one of those things that should be vegetarian and vegan friendly. After all, it’s made from mostly plants and grains such as barley, hops, yeast and water. But over the years, different beer brewers have discovered different ways of making their brews – and not all of them are veg-friendly.
Some ingredients in non-veggie beers aren’t easy to spot because labeling requirements on alcohol aren’t as strict as those on foods, so you might find that you have no idea just what’s in your favorite beer or whether animal products were used in the production or not.
Honey and Milk Ingredients in Beer
Honey is usually a pretty well-disclosed ingredient in most beers. It’s a selling point for a beer to have honey and it’s also an allergen concern. So honey gets a lot of space on beer bottle labels. Not all beers disclose honey use, however, especially if it was just used in the roasting process.
Milk-derived ingredients can be harder to spot. Again, labeling requirements aren’t as strict for beers as they are for food, so you might find some beers containing milk-derived lactose. If it’s a “sweet”, “milk” or “cream” stout, for example, chances are pretty high that dairy is involved.
Similarly, chocolate also finds its way into several beer names and descriptions. Sometimes the beer does, indeed, contain milk chocolate and is thus not suitable for vegans. But sometimes chocolate is used to describe the taste or texture, as Is the case with “chocolate malt”, which contains no chocolate whatsoever.
Caesin or potassium caseinate, is a milk-derived ingredient used as a clarifier to reduce the cloudiness of some beers. It’s a protein structure found in milk. Any beer that includes casein or potassium caseinate is not vegan friendly.
Animal Bone and Blood Ingredients in Beer
Vegans will want to steer clear of animal-derived ingredients including milk and honey, the inclusion of which obviously does not mean that the animal they came from was killed, but trying to avoid all animal ingredients is a tough task when evaluating beers.
Blood and bone-derived ingredients almost always mean that animal parts were used in the brewing process or in the final product. The practice is surprisingly common.
Albumin, for example, is a blood protein that’s labeled as albium. Although the term can refer to any water-soluble protein, animal blood serum albumin is usually used because of cost and availability. When used in the brewing process, albium helps clarify the beer.
Gelatin is another possibly bone-derived product found in beers. Because it can be made from bones, connective tissue or skin, it isn’t a vegetarian ingredient and an animal had to die to obtain it. It’s also used as a clarifier in beer and sometimes to add texture.
Charcoal, which is used in the filtration process of some beers, can be derived from wood but usually contains some amount of animal bone product, again due to the low cost and easy accessibility.
White sugar, surprisingly, is not considered a vegetarian ingredient, as the whitening process it undergoes uses bone charcoal to impart a white color on it. Raw sugar and unprocessed cane sugars don’t undergo the same process, so they’re considered vegetarian friendly.
Isinglass is a substance found in the swim bladders of fish that aids in their buoyancy. After they’re dead, the swim bladders are removed and the isinglass is used as a clarifier in beer to reduce cloudiness.
Isinglass is the single most common clarifier in the brewing industry, and all cask ales use isinglass as a clarifier. Though it’s more common in UK and European brewing, some US breweries use isinglass as well.
Insects, Fossils, and Seashells
You might not want to think about any of these ingredients in your favorite brew, but insects are a common coloring agent. For example, carmine, extracted from insects, gives beer a very red color. While not all beers use coloring agents and not all dyes are insect-derived, you can never be sure just by glancing at a beer whether it does or doesn’t use an insect-derived dye.
If you thought insects and fish swim bladders were weird, some beers use diatomaceous earth in their refining process. Diatomaceous earth – made by grinding the shells of sea creatures – filters out impurities and plant matter during the brewing process. So it’s not exactly vegan or vegetarian friendly, either.
Some beer makers just can’t stand a good head and seek to control their foam. These beers can use animal-derived ingredients to do just that. Glyceryl monostarate is a glycerin-derived product that controls foam. Pepsin, a pig byproduct, also controls foam in beer. Neither of these ingredients are vegan or vegetarian-friendly, but unless the company advertises their use, you really have no way of knowing whether they’re in your beer.
Finding a Veggie Beer
Companies that produce veggie-friendly beers are proud of that fact and often advertise themselves as such. Animal welfare organizations regularly issue lists of veg-friendly beer options and there are plenty of websites devoted to the topic. If you’re curious about a particular beer, contact the brewery or manufacturer. Most are more than happy to answer questions and provide thorough answers. If they don’t have an answer at hand, most are more than willing to find out for you.
If you really want to be sure your beer is veg-safe, look into home-brewing. It’s a time-consuming, costly endeavor, but many find it to be an enjoyable hobby and it’s really the only way to be 100% sure your brews are cruelty-free and safe from animal products and byproducts.