Sunday, November 8, 2009

Is Beer Vegan?

The question was recently raised about whether or not craft beer (or beer in general) can be considered vegan. As people become more conscious about what they eat and where their food comes from, and especially as organic claims and certification more often than not blur the lines of truth and nutrition, this can be a genuine concern to those on restricted diets.

First of all, all beer is clearly a vegetarian foodstuff. Vegetarianism is the abstaining from eating the flesh of all animals, and no meat products are ever used in any brewing process of any kind. (Medieval recipes exist for variations on a rather unappealing brewed beverage known as cock ale, but that is a topic for another day.)

However, modern veganism is much more restrictive than a traditional vegetarian diet. As defined by the American Vegan Society, “[t]he vegan diet excludes flesh, fish, fowl, dairy products (animal milk, butter, cheese, yogurt, etc.), eggs, honey, animal gelatin, and all other foods of animal origin.” This means avoiding not only animal flesh but all animal byproducts and derivatives.

From simply an ingredient standpoint, most beer can be considered wholly vegan. Even the most adventurous craft beers include nothing but malted grains, hops, water, fruit or spice additions, and yeast. (Any beer containing honey obviously cannot be considered vegan.) Yeast itself is classified as a fungus, so although it is an independent microorganism it should offer no objection as mushrooms and tofu are acceptable to the vegan diet.

The point at which some beers may garner the disapproval of vegans lies in the various methods used for clarification of the beverage. Many craft brewers prefer to leave their beers unfiltered as it can enhance body and flavor, so these should offer no objection whatsoever. But an additional clarification step at the end of the brewing process can be problematic, depending on the method used.

One popular method of clarifying beer is the addition of finings near the end of the brewing process. Finings are materials that function as flocculation points for yeast in suspension to collect and eventually sink to the bottom under their own weight, where they can be easily removed in bulk. Even though very little of the fining material remains in the finished product, this practice is enough to render the beer non-vegan if animal byproducts are used.

Specifically, at one time brewers used a material known as isinglass as a fining material. Isinglass is a collagen product obtained from the swim bladders of sturgeon, and it has a few other cooking applications in confectionery and dessert-making. However, many modern brewers are abandoning the use of isinglass in industrial brewing—not over vegan objections but simply due to the expense, as the material has become quite costly.

Another fining material very popular with homebrewers is known as Irish moss. Irish moss is a red algae containing carrageenan that looks much like any other herb when dried, and is of course wholly vegan. Other fining substances such as gelatin from fats, casein from cheesemaking or albumen from chicken eggs are so rarely used any more they are virtually nonexistent within the modern commercial brewing industry.

Most clarification processes used today do not involve added finings at all but instead rely upon physical filtration methods. The beer flows through either a very fine-grade industrial microporous screen or, more commonly, diatomaceous earth. Diatomaceous earth is a chalk-like mineral product formed from the fossilized remains of diatoms, or phytoplankton with a calcareous skeleton. It is cheap, easy to replace and recycle, and is the preferred method of filtration for many craft brewers today.

Of course, nothing beats first-hand information. Virtually all American craft beer on the market today is wholly compliant with the vegan philosophy, but if you are still concerned talk to the brewer directly. Most would be happy to explain their process to you and rather flattered that you showed such a detailed interest in their profession.

1 comment:

Thuc Nguyen said...

This time there is a good beer too :)
teefury , redbubble , threadless.