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An Examination of Vegan/Gluten Free/Organic Beers

Food: we all eat it, and there are nearly as many dietary styles as there are people. There’s vegetarian, vegan, pescetarian, lacto-ovo, gluten-free, raw, Kosher, local, organic, carnivorous, omnivorous, herbivorous, people who don’t like anchovies, you name it. While food preferences sometimes aren’t immediately associated with beer choices, many times people’s dietary choices or requirements spill over into their beer-drinking habits as well. Below I’m going to explore what three different consumption styles mean in terms of beer.

Food: we all eat it, and there are nearly as many dietary styles as there are people. There’s vegetarian, vegan, pescetarian, lacto-ovo, gluten-free, raw, Kosher, local, organic, carnivorous, omnivorous, herbivorous, people who don’t like anchovies, you name it. While food preferences sometimes aren’t immediately associated with beer choices, many times people’s dietary choices or requirements spill over into their beer-drinking habits as well. Below I’m going to explore what three different consumption styles mean in terms of beer.

Note: Make sure to click on all three pages, linked at the bottom of the article, to read all three sections!

Vegan Beers

For those of you on college campuses circa the early 2000s, remember these posters popping up around dorms and dining halls, courtesy of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)?

PETA’s campaign promoted beer to college students as a healthier, more ethical alternative to milk on the premise that it contained no animal products and thus did not contribute to bovine misery and human health decline as milk did. It was eventually pulled, however, out of respect to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Though PETA no doubt had idealistic intentions, it wasn’t just the promotion of alcohol to a largely underage population that was suspect: beer, as a category of beverage, is not wholly vegan. Some of the non-vegan ones are pretty obvious, if you think about it. Milk Stouts? Clearly made with milk (or lactose, rather, a sugar derived from milk). Ales and lagers flavored with honey? Definitely not getting that from anything other than bees. But beyond the milk stouts, honey ales, and bacon-infused lagers, the rest of the group seems to be pretty vegan-friendly, right? I mean, a beer is just hops, barley, yeast, and water, isn’t it? Sometimes with other grains, fruits, or herbs added in?

Well, yes. But even in Germany, where beers are brewed under the Reinheitsgebot of 1516 (which requires that no other ingredients be used beyond hops, barley, yeast, and water), you can’t guarantee your beer will not use or come into contact with animal products at some point in its production. Some of the more common animal-derived production agents found in beer include:

  • Isinglass, or the swim bladders of fish. This is the most common animal ingredient in beers, and is used as a fining agent to help speed the clearing of the beer.
  • Albumin, another fining agent, derived from eggs or dried blood.
  • Glyceryl monostearate, an anti-foaming agent that can be an animal derivative.
  • Charcoal, for filtering, which is sometimes derived from bone.
  • Colorings sometimes derived from insects.
  • Pepsin, a heading agent often derived from pork
  • Sugar. Yes, sugar. Seems innocent, but sugar is often whitened using bone-derived charcoal.

Sterile filtration is one way to get around consuming a beer with traces of animal products, if one doesn’t mind that they were still used in the first place. A brewery that uses sterile filtration should be able to remove all traces of animal products used in the brewing process, depending on the micron size of the filter. But this also means that most cask ales are not vegan, as they are fined in the cask and then served.

However, even though there are ways to produce a beer without animal products or theoretically remove all traces of them after the beer has been brewed, there are currently no labeling laws in place that require breweries to declare whether beers are vegan or non-vegan, or even make a beer’s ingredients known in any way, be it on the label, on a website, or through some other means of distributing information. Though I’m sure you’d be hard-pressed to find a brewery that would refuse the information if asked, there’s nothing that says the information has to be easily or readily accessible.

There are a few websites out there that give some insight into which beers are vegan-friendly. Surprisingly, many beers that aren’t built on the concept are still vegan. Resources include:

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