If you’re vegan or a vegetarian, you’re probably used to checking the ingredients in your food before eating it. But what about the bottle of homebrew beer that your friend just handed you? Are you sure you know what it contains?
Beer is made of malted barley, hops, yeast and water, so surely homebrew MUST be vegan, right? Well, although in most cases that is true, several products that are derived from animals are commonly used by homebrewers to make beer, so you should always check to make sure.
Even though the main ingredients in beer are vegan, some beers also include animal-derived ingredients. Homebrewers often use gelatine and isinglass (fish bladders) to make beer clear, and both honey and lactose are used to flavour some beer styles.
In this post, we look at the non-vegan ingredients which may be found in homebrewed beer and learn what they are used for. I’ve also included some plant-based alternatives that can be used instead.
If you’re thinking of trying your hand at home brewing, at the end of the post there’s a list of vegan-friendly homebrew kits which will get you off to a good start.
Animal products that are commonly used to homebrew beer
Finings (clearing agents)
The most common ingredient that makes homebrew beer unsuitable for vegans and strict vegetarians has nothing to do with flavour. Beer naturally tends to be cloudy and, although cloudy beer is safe to drink, many brewers add products called “finings” to their beer and wine to make them crystal clear.
Traditionally brewers use either isinglass or gelatine, both of which come from animals. Isinglass is made from the swim bladder of a particular type of fish. Gelatine comes from the bones of either cows or pigs.
Nowadays, there are several plant-based or synthetic fining agents available.
The most popular vegan and vegetarian-friendly fining agent is Irish moss, which is actually a type of dried seaweed. Homebrew shops sell Irish moss in its natural state or as tablets with names like Whirlfloc or Protofloc.
Synthetic fining agents include silica gel and polyvinylpolypyrrolidine, which are typically sold as Kieselsol or Polyclar AT.
Lactose is a type of non-fermentable sugar that is derived from milk.
Lactose is most commonly used to add body and sweetness to milk stouts or pastry stouts but is sometimes added to New England IPA and other hazy IPAs.
Honey is the main ingredient in mead and is also used in some types of beer. Honey is most commonly used in Saisons or farmyard beers and honey porters.
Most homebrewers are obsessed with what goes into their beer and, if you ask them, they’ll be able to tell you exactly what is in their beer.
They may not realise that most vegans or vegetarians won’t drink a beer that was cleared with isinglass or which contains honey, but if you ask them what fining agent they used, they’re sure to be able to tell you.
Vegan Homebrew Kits
If you are a vegan or vegetarian and are thinking of getting into home brewing, I recommend you start with one of the kits below, both of which are vegan friendly.
Northern Brewer All-Inclusive Gift Set 1 Gallon Starter kit
Small one gallon (5 litres) kits are an ideal way to try your hand at beer making and a great way to start homebrewing.
This good quality kit by Northern Brewer includes everything you need to get started brewing and bottling your own vegan beer. I started with a kit similar to this one and, although I now brew larger batches and have purchased more equipment, I still use some of the components from the original kit.
Northern Brewer Premium Craft Brewery in a Box
If you have a larger budget, then this kit has everything you need to start brewing five-gallon batches of beer. This premium-grade kit includes an eight-gallon stainless steel brew kettle, a wort chiller and a hydrometer. It’s not cheap but has the advantage that you won’t need to upgrade later.