Back in 2017, beer drinkers with a taste for compassion rejoiced at some wonderful news: Guinness—the famous Irish stout—had finally gone vegan! Those unfamiliar with how beer is made were prompted to ask, “What does this mean? Isn’t all beer vegan?” While beer is often vegan, it’s not the case for all beer. To make its thick, creamy stout vegan, the Guinness Brewery rolled out a new filtration process that no longer used isinglass, a substance derived from the swim bladders of certain fishes common in beer making.
Isinglass is an old-school solution to the challenge of making beer appear clear once yeast, which converts sugar into alcohol during fermentation, has done its job and remains suspended in the liquid, giving beer a cloudy appearance. The harmless yeast eventually settles to the bottom of the barrel or keg, but brewers wanted a production shortcut, so in the 19th century many of them began adding isinglass, a fining agent that binds to yeast cells and other floating particles and sinks to the base of the brewing vessel. But it’s just one example of why some beers don’t make the vegan cut.
What is beer?
In its purest form, beer is a fermented beverage made from water, yeast, hops, and grain, such as barley, wheat, rice, corn, or oats. Humans have been making and drinking beer for a very, very long time—researchers have found evidence for beer brewing in present-day Israel that dates back 13,000 years. Native Americans were brewing a form of beer from corn, likely for ceremonial purposes, in what is now New Mexico some 800 years ago. Archeologists speculate that beer even contributed to the formation of civilization, since it motivated ancient farmers to settle down and grow the grains needed to make the sacred suds they’d use for feasts and other social gatherings.
The alcohol content of beer varies widely, generally ranging from 5 to 20 percent. Non-alcoholic beer is becoming more common (and better-tasting), with both 0-percent and 0.5-percent alcohol marketed as non-alcoholic.
Not surprisingly, beer is the world’s third-most-popular drink, after water and tea.
Types of beer
There are more than a hundred types of beer, but most of them fall into two general categories: ales and lagers. Ales are fermented with top-fermenting yeast at warm temperatures (60˚–75˚ F) and tend to have a fruity flavor profile, while lagers are fermented with bottom-fermenting yeast at cold temperatures (35˚–55˚ F) and offer a clean, crisp taste. There is also a smaller category of beer called hybrids, which are brewed with a combination of practices, such as being fermented with ale yeast at lager (cool) temperatures.
Among the more well-known ales are pale ales, India pale ales (IPA), stouts, and wheat beers.
Popular lagers include pilsners, imperial pilsners, Mexican-style lagers, Belgian-style lagers, and Vienna-style lagers.
The most famous hybrid beer is arguably steam beer, one of the few beer styles born in the US. (Since Anchor Stream trademarked “steam beer” in 1982, competing brewers must instead label their steam beer “common” or “California common.”)
Is beer vegan?
The good news is that most beer is vegan. Unfortunately, some do contain animal ingredients that make it unsuitable for anyone wanting vegan beer. There are about a dozen animal ingredients that may be in your favorite beer.
Animal ingredients in beer
These ingredients likely won’t appear on any label, especially when they’re used in the fining process, but here’s a list of the most common (and a few uncommon) animal ingredients found in beer.
- Albumin: Used as a foaming agent, albumin is a protein derived from animal blood or eggs.
- Bone char: Burned animal bones used in the filtration process
- Carmine: A red dye made from cochineal beetles, carmine may be found in beers that have a pink hue
- Casein: A milk protein used to clarify beer
- Chitin/Chitosan: Chitin and its derivative chitosan are substances primarily derived from the exoskeletons of lobsters, crabs, and shrimps, although they can also come from fungi; they are used as fining agents.
- Gelatin: This fining agent is made from decaying animal skins, boiled bones, and the connective tissues of cows and pigs.
- Glycerol monostearate: Another foaming agent, glycerol monostearate is typically made from animal fats, although it can also be made from plants.
- Honey: An animal-derived ingredient sometimes used to flavor beer or raise its alcohol content or as the basis of mead.
- Isinglass: Perhaps the most common fining agent, isinglass is a collagen made from swim bladders, an organ certain tropical and subtropical fishes use to control their buoyancy.
- Lactose: This sugar found in milk can sweeten beer without adding alcohol, since brewing yeast cannot ferment it. It is especially found in “milk” or “cream” stouts.
- Oysters: Once used as a fining agent in “oyster” stouts, oysters are now added to flavor them.
- Whey: A flavor additive made from dairy
Vegan beer fining agents
While some beer makers seem stuck to isinglass and other animal-based fining agents, a growing number of brewers are using vegan options to clarify beer, such as centrifuges, bentonite clay, cold conditioning, diatomaceous earth (a type of sand comprised of fossilized algae), and a seaweed called Irish moss.
“To prevent chill haze, most of our brands receive a small dose of Irish moss during the boil process in the brewhouse, which helps to precipitate out the haze-causing proteins from the malt,” Ashlee Mooneyhan of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. tells VegNews. “Additionally, our process typically includes plenty of cold time below 30° Fahrenheit, followed by a quick spin through a centrifuge before packaging to remove the remaining material that would contribute to clarity issues. Some beers are also clarified through contact with an adsorbent polymer and passing through a filter to achieve even higher clarity.”
Some brewers have gone truly traditional and opt to store their beer for longer, allowing the yeast and other particulates to settle naturally. It’s a process called “long lagering,” from the German word lagern, meaning “to store.”
How to tell if beer is vegan
Brewers make their beer-crafting decisions to create a delicious product, not necessarily to attract vegans, so they rarely label or market their beers as being vegan-friendly or not. That may change as more food and beverage companies recognize the demand for vegan products but in the meantime, it makes finding vegan beers a bit of a challenge.
Currently, one of the easiest ways to identify a vegan beer is to check the website Barnivore, an online directory that uses crowdsourcing to identify and evaluate the vegan-friendliness of more than 55,000 adult beverages.
You can also download BevVeg, a free mobile app managed by an international law firm that certifies vegan beer, wine, liquor, and other products. There are reportedly more than one million beverages listed in their database.
Another—and perhaps the best—option is to contact the brewer directly and ask them if a particular beer uses any animal ingredients in its manufacture. This will provide the most up-to-date answer, and it will remind the company that there is a growing demand for vegan products.
Here at VegNews, we make it our job to be on top of the newest products, the must-try sweets, the gotta-have-it items. And just as important as it is to know what those new items are, we want to share them with you, so that you can be the most current conscious consumer out there. So we present to you the VegNews Guides, a series of lists dedicated to the things vegans love most—beer included. Below is an up-to-date, ever-expanding roster of the vegan beer offered nationwide.