Vegan beers — what to look out for

It has been four years since I last wrote about vegan beer and things have changed, so I’ve decided to revisit the subject.

I will answer some of the questions you might have, like “how on earth can a beer not be vegan?” and “how is vegan beer made?”

After that, I’ll put together a short list of some of the better vegan beers available in the UK at the moment.

Finally, I have a list of UK breweries making exclusively vegan beers.

But first the good news: 2021 is a great time to be a vegan beer drinker. There’s a huge variety of beers available to you and the number is growing all the time, as isinglass (the main reason some beers are not vegan) is falling out of fashion among brewers.

Quick answers on vegan beer

Google suggests people want to know the following…

Can vegans drink beer?
Yes, there are lots of beers that are suitable for vegans to enjoy.

Is vegan beer alcoholic?
Yes, vegan beer is usually alcoholic. But it doesn’t have to be. The vegan bit and the alcoholic bit are not linked.

Is vegan beer gluten free?
No, vegan beer is not normally gluten free. But it can be. The vegan bit and the gluten free bit are not linked.

Is vegan beer good for you?
I mean… no? Vegan beer is not ‘better for you’ than regular beer. But it’s not necessarily bad for you either if you drink in moderation. It’s no different to any other beer in that respect.

Right, that’s the quick stuff dealt with. Now on to the bigger questions…

How is beer not vegan?

First let’s be clear: beer’s ingredients are vegan. They are malted grain (usually barley), hops, yeast and water. The basic ingredients do not contain any animal products.

(In case you’re not sure, yeast is a fungus and therefore yes, yeast is suitable for vegans.)

These basic ingredients are the same for all beers, no matter what colour or strength they are.

So if there are no animal products in the basic ingredients, how come some beers are not vegan?

That’s a very reasonable question.

There are three main ways in which a beer might not be vegan. They boil down to the use of animal products as adjuncts (i.e. extra ingredients) or as filtering agents.

Some breweries use isinglass, a collagen derived from fish, to filter their beers. I won’t go into detail here as I covered this when I last wrote about vegan beer. You can read more there if you want.

Some brewers add lactose to their beers to add extra body or sweetness. Lactose is an unfermentable sugar that comes from milk.

This has become more popular in recent years with the growing interest in styles such as milk stouts and milkshake IPAs.

Brewers who use lactose in their beers are required to list it on the label under UK law because it is a potential allergen.

Some brewers use honey to flavour their beer. It isn’t all that common, and isn’t really tied to any particular beer style, but beers made in this way tend to be pale rather than dark in order to allow the honey flavour to come through more noticeably.

These are the most common reasons for a beer not to be vegan, but there are a few others too. These ones will come up much less frequently.

Some oyster stouts do indeed use oysters in the brewing process.

Some beers are brewed with ham or bacon but it’s very unusual. There are also smoked beers with bacon-like flavours that contain no meat at all. (In which case the flavours come from the smoked malt.)

How is vegan beer made?

The simple answer is it’s made the same way as all beer.

None of things that can make a beer unfit for vegans are core parts of the brewing process, so it’s extremely simple to leave them out.

It’s easy to avoid using isinglass. You can drink unfiltered beers. Many people even prefer them. Look for the terms unfined or unfiltered on the label.

If you still want a crystal clear beer, that’s OK too. Brewers can filter it using alternative methods that are vegan friendly.

Adding ingredients like lactose and honey are a choice brewers sometimes make, but the neither is required to make beer. The vast majority of beers do not contain any lactose or honey at all.

Vegan beer list

Here is my round up of some of the best vegan beers in the UK available at the moment.

I’m not attempting an exhaustive list. At this point there are just too many. Instead this is a selection of a few good examples covering a reasonably wide list of beer styles.

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