Is beer suitable for vegans?

Is beer suitable for vegans?

Written by Oliver Coningham on 11 February 2016 in Vegan Beer

Who would stop to think that animal products are in your drink or were involved in the process of making it? Much like discovering sweets contain gelatine derived from animals, people are often shocked and surprised to learn that beer contains animal products too. Visiting one of the many traditional real ale festivals around the country can be hugely disappointing to any vegan beer lover. At a recent real ale festival, which featured in excess of 65 casks of ale, none were suitable for vegans. The outlook, at first glance, appears grim.

There is hope with popular vegan blogger Fat Gay Vegan who created the London Vegan Beer Fest back in 2013. Born out of a desire to see more vegan beer, Sean O'Callaghan, has created a boutique drinking event for lovers of craft beer that takes place every July. London Vegan Beer Fest will return in 2016, but it will also be visiting two more UK cities including Glasgow in August and Manchester in September.

Why isn't beer vegan?

So what is it that's used in the production of beer that renders many unsuitable to vegans? The answer is a substance called isinglass which is derived from the swim bladder of a certain species of fish, usually the sturgeon. The isinglass is mixed with various chemicals and preservatives; this is then added to the beer in order to help the beer become clear. The isinglass finings attract all the residual yeast created during the brewing process which then collects in a jelly-like mass at the bottom of the cask. You'll often find people referring to isinglass as "fish guts"; it's an emotive term that divides opinion, but it does distinctly make the point.

There should be minimal traces of isinglass in your pint and when the beer is subsequently bottled the amount of isinglass left in the final product is little to none. However, this is of little comfort to vegans when an animal product has been used in the production process. This mainly occurs in British cask beer where there has been a constant quest for a crystal clear pint; what is known in the industry as 'bright beer'. The reason for this is that, traditionally, the appearance of a hazy or cloudy pint was associated with poor beer and bad cellar management. Having a crystal clear pint therefore was an indication of a quality drink that had been well cared for. How often have you seen a consumer hold their pint up to the light to check it was clear? Conversely there are certain styles of beer where certain haziness is seen as a mark of quality such as the German Hefe Weizen.

The other topic of contention for some people is whether yeast itself is vegan or not. The simple answer is yes. Yeast, like mushrooms, are eukaryotic micro-organisms classified in the fungi kingdom. Essentially, this means that yeast is not derived from animal products, nor classified as an animal product, therefore it is vegan-friendly. If you are happy to consume mushrooms, then yeast should not be a problem for you.

Alternatives to isinglass

There are currently a few alternatives to the use of isinglass available to breweries. These range from the simplest method which is to leave the beer unfined to mechanical filtration. Bristol based Moor Beer are at the core of the unfined beer movement in the UK. Their beers include Revival, a hoppy and refreshing pale ale with notes of lime and herbs to Old Freddy Walker, a rich, full-bodied old ale full of dark chocolate, molasses and fruitcake. Justin Hawke at Moor Beer believes that if left undisturbed, beer will naturally clear on its own over a long period of time. Isinglass merely accelerates the process.

Mechanical filtration is another method of clearing the beer that is used by many modern breweries. The filtration makes use of diatomaceous earth, paper sheets or cartridges. The beer filtered in this way has diatomaceous earth, which is a naturally occurring, soft, siliceous sedimentary rock, added to it. Once combined with the beer it clings to any residual yeast which is then mechanically filtered out of the final product.

The other alternative is centrifugal filtration where the beer is run through a series of discs that spin at a high RPM. The centrifugal force causes any solids in the beer to collect on the discs and be subsequently removed. Both forms of mechanical filtration require expensive equipment and there is a noticeable loss in final volumes of beer produced too.

Many people mention Irish moss or seaweed when discussing alternatives to isinglass. This is in part true, such products do help to improve beer clarity, but they are used at different stages of the brewing process and for different reasons. Two main substances cause haze in beer, proteins and yeast, it is the latter which isinglass relates to. Proteins on the other hand are created earlier on in the process and are dealt with during the boil stage with the addition of Irish moss or seaweed. Irish moss and seaweed finings are negatively charged and therefore attract the haze forming proteins.

Lack of labelling

The lack of labelling is the biggest problem that affects the ability to decipher whether a beer is suitable for vegans or not. The current EC labelling regulations for alcoholic beverages states that: "a complete list of ingredients in descending order by weight is currently only required for drinks with an alcoholic strength by volume (abv) of 1.2% or less."

Generally, it can be assumed that the majority of British cask beer that is served at cellar temperature and dispensed by hand pump will contain isinglass. There are several vegan breweries that produce cask beer without isinglass including Manchester-based Marble Brewery and VegFest stalwarts Pitfield Brewery.

The Barnivore website is an invaluable resource for checking whether a brewery is vegan or not. Depending on the popularity of a certain beer the listings can be out of date so it is worthwhile contacting the brewery to be sure. Some breweries will have FAQ sections on their website which usually detail whether their beers are vegan or not. If you do a little research, it's then possible to know what the safe options are when going to a pub. A large majority of breweries do seem reluctant to label their products as vegan, the response "Yes, they are vegan, but we don't like to shout about it." is all too common. However, by not indicating suitability they are potentially missing out on a large market sector of more than 6% of the UK population who identify as vegan or vegetarian.

There are many common lagers such as Stella Artois and Grolsch that are all suitable. It is also worth noting that beer served via keg, bottle or can is more likely to be vegan-friendly. These are known as 'brewery-conditioned' beer and, unlike cask beer, has finished its fermentation process at the brewery and all yeast is usually filtered out. Often, if your favourite cask beer is unsuitable, you may find that the bottled version is, as they are clarified by filtration rather than use isinglass. For example, St. Austell Brewery's core range, including Tribute, is all vegan-friendly in bottles whereas cask is not. German beers are also another safe option as the German Beer Purity Law (Reinheitsgebot) allows them to use four ingredients only: water, grain, hops and yeast.

Finding bottled vegan beer can be easier and there are a number of breweries that have their range registered with The Vegan Society. Samuel Smiths, Stroud Brewery, Little Valley and Batemans are just a few. Supermarkets are a great place to find vegan beer and often their own-brand beers are contract brewed and well labelled. This allows access to many breweries around the country that you wouldn't normally have. Marks & Spencer's range of beers include a Cornish IPA by St. Austell Brewery and a Greenwich Black IPA from Meantime Brewery that are both vegan-friendly. Asda have teamed up with Shepherd Neame to create a range of beers that are suitable as well. Waitrose too have their Duchy Originals range of bottled beer that are both vegan and organic. These have been brewed by Wychwood Brewery, producers of the Hobgoblin range which itself is not suitable.

Craft beer movement

The recent explosion of the craft beer movement has also meant an abundance of vegan friendly beer. These are brewed by small, independent breweries that create innovative and experimental beers. Due to the experimental nature of these beers it pays to be aware of the use of honey, lactose and other unsuitable ingredients. Flavour takes precedent and beer is often left unfined for improved mouthfeel and taste.

The breweries range from Scotland's expertly marketed BrewDog to London-based Beavertown, founded by Logan Plant who happens to be the son of Led Zeppelin lead singer Robert Plant. The majority of BrewDog's range, except Dogma which uses honey and their new milk stout, Jet Black Heart, which contains lactose, can be classed as vegan-friendly and their bottles can be found in most large supermarkets. New Bristol start-up brewery Crane Beer creates some exceptional beers which are 'unfiltered, unfined, unpasteurised and unapologetically hazy', with all but their milk stout being vegan friendly.

The upsurge in interest in craft beer has also led Wetherspoon to include a diverse range of craft beer in bottles and cans which are mostly suitable. From the flavourful Vienna-style Brooklyn Lager to the fruity riot of Lagunitas IPA there is plenty of choice with BrewDog bottles being a permanent feature.

The craft beer movement has also born a number of beer festivals including the London Craft Beer Festival that is billed as 'a celebration of great beer, passionate brewers and a true beer city'.

Not a strictly vegan beer festival, but it does feature some of the best names in craft beer today whose output happens to be vegan-friendly. From the eye-catching beers of Partizan Brewing which include a Saison Iced Tea to the subtle branding of The Kernel who create some outstanding beers including their India Pale Ale which showcases the strong fruitiness of the New Zealand Nelson Sauvin hop.

Journey of discovery

Ultimately, the best way to establish whether a beer is suitable is to contact the brewery. As well as ensuring the information you receive is up-to-date, it also enables you to form a relationship with them. This also has the added benefit of showing that there is a demand for vegan beer. Tools such as Barnivore and Google are very useful, but with the industry rapidly evolving and changing don't be afraid to ask as well. Remember, it's just as important to tell them what you loved too. 

As with other aspects of the vegan lifestyle it can be challenging at times so try to be easy on yourself and forgive and forget your mistakes as well. Enjoy the journey with vegan beer. You will find it opens up a whole new world of taste and discoveries. Embrace it.


Drink less. Drink better.